The terms organic, free-range, and vegetarian-fed are all over egg cartons these days – but what do those words actually mean?
Conventional Eggs are laid by hens living in cages with access to feed, water, and security. The cages serve as nesting space. In this type of hen house, the birds are protected from the elements, disease, and predators.
In contrast, free-range eggs are produced by hens that have access to the outdoors – in accordance with weather, environmental or state laws. This term doesn’t mean the hen spends all her time outside. In addition to consuming a diet of grains, these hens may forage for wild plants and insects. They are provided floor space, nesting space, and perches.
Finally, there are cage-free eggs laid by hens living within indoor floor operations, sometimes called free-roaming. The hens may roam in a building, room or open area, usually in a barn or poultry house, and have unlimited access to fresh food and water. Some may also forage for food if they are allowed outdoors. Cage-free systems vary and include barn-raised and free-range hens, both of which have shelter that helps protect against predators.
You may see some packaging that refers to enriched colony eggs. This means the egg production system contains adequate environmental enrichments such as perch space, dust bathing, scratch areas, and nest spaces that allow the hens to exhibit inherent behavior. Enriched colony systems are American Humane Certified.
How the hens live determines what kind of eggs they produce. It’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture that determines whether they are organic eggs – those are produced by hens fed rations with ingredients that were grown without most conventional pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or commercial fertilizers.