Cage-Free Eggs May Not Be All They’re Cracked Up to Be

Cage-Free Eggs May Not Be All They’re Cracked Up to Be

While uncaged hens have greater mobility and access to the outdoors, there are still several animal welfare concerns when it comes to cage-free eggs.

Cage-free eggs — which refer to eggs from hens that are not confined to small spaces — have recently come under scrutiny by a number of organizations. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), United Egg Producers and the Humane League are among some of the organizations to call out cage-free eggs and expose some of their shortcomings. 

But before delving into the criticism, it is important to define cage-free eggs and compare them to some of their counterparts. The cage-free egg label indicates that the egg-laying hens are, indeed, not confined to battery cages. However, this label alone does not guarantee that the hens have access to the outdoors or, more broadly, experience positive states needed to uphold animal welfare standards.

Free-range eggs refer to eggs from birds that aren’t kept in cages and have access to the outdoors, but they can still be raised in crowded conditions. Farm-fresh eggs come from “farms,” even if the hens are packed into cages, while organic eggs refer to eggs that were laid by uncaged hens fed grains grown without synthetic pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

With some of the many categories of eggs defined, let’s take a deeper look at cage-free eggs and why they may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

Related: Why Is There an Egg Shortage in the US and Around the World?

The transition from battery cages to uncaged housing systems for egg-laying hens is one of the most prevalent global trends for the egg industry in recent years. Beginning in Europe, the cage free movement has since gained momentum in many countries around the world, including the US, where it is expected that the share of cage-free eggs will increase to about two thirds of the market by 2026.

However, while uncaged housing provides hens with more space, increased mobility and greater expression of the bird’s natural behavior, cage-free farming can be associated with some health and welfare concerns that should be addressed by egg producers.

First, since uncaged hens have contact with the floor, the increased bird activity also increases the amount of dust in the air. Consequently, dust levels in cage-free buildings can be five to 15 times greater than in houses equipped with cages. Levels of ammonia, an inorganic compound generated from hens’ manure, also tend to be higher in uncaged systems.

Feather pecking — which can result in denuded body areas, often followed by pecking of the skin, wounding, bleeding and, in extreme cases, mortality due to cannibalism — is another major welfare issue among hens. Although it can occur in any housing system, this behavioral problem can spread more easily and become even more serious among uncaged flocks given the larger group size.

On average, the hen mortality rate is greater among uncaged hens compared to furnished cages. A UK study that reviewed the on-farm mortality of nearly 1,500 flocks, comprising 13.3 million hens, provided striking evidence for this trend. Despite a considerable variation between flocks, under all systems, the average cumulative mortality rate was lower in caged (5.39 percent) than in free-range flocks (9.52 percent).

Air quality, feather pecking and higher mortality rates are just some of the many welfare concerns in uncaged egg production. Despite this, numerous major egg producers, retailers, foodservice companies and hotel chains have already committed to switch entirely to cage-free eggs by 2025, many of which were exposed in the Humane League’s recent “Eggposé.”

In the report, the global animal welfare nonprofit called on all companies publicly pledged to eliminate caged eggs from their supply chains to be transparent by disclosing their progress to consumers and stakeholders. 

Some suggest the free run housing system as an alternative to conventional battery cagess. This system is separate and distinctive from the free-range housing system in that hens are housed together in a large area without cages and include automated communal feeding systems, litter flooring, perches dust-bathing areas and private nesting areas.