Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pasture-Raised, Oh My!

Josette Madonia June 16, 2013 1

By Josette Madonia
Arizona Community Press |

imagesThere are so many labels on food nowadays, it can be confusing.  However there are also many reasons why you should understand labels and, in particular, care about where your eggs come from.

The general public is sometimes deceived when it comes to the food we consume; this is particularly the case with processed foods or restaurant food, but with concern over genetically modified food and pesticides, now whole foods are can be added to the list. From the “pink slime” used to make McDonald’s hamburger meat, the “close to 100 ingredients” (including harmful dyes such as Blue 1, Blue 2, and Yellow 5 & 6) in a Chick-fil-A sandwich,pig bung” disguised as calamari and meat glue. As a society we have decided to depend on this mass produced food with more deception, yet we are not getting any healthier. It may be wise to learn a little bit about where our food comes from to be conscientious consumers. Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen from Portlandia give new meaning to the saying, know where your food comes from. Some may say they are a little extreme.

Watch this video where Carrie and Fred question where the chicken they are about to order at a restaurant comes from. (While Carrie and Fred may seem just like someone you know, Portlandia is a skit comedy show and is not real.)

Why should the treatment of hens used to produce eggs matter to the average consumer? In 2001 Allan P. Rahn, a poultry economist at Michigan State University, published a paper titled, Caged Laying Hen Well-Being:  An Economic Perspective.  In the paper he stated that firms in the commercial egg producing industry are under constant pressure to reduce production costs. They’ve had committees and meetings discussing animal husbandry and how to produce eggs while addressing concerns of compassionate treatment of animals in factory farms. Yet these meetings and committees translated to time and money resources. Therefore, Rahn states that consumers, through proper labeling and certification, should vote for how they would like their hens treated with their dollars.

Some people believe that consuming eggs does no harm to the hens that produce them, however, this is usually not the case. Most eggs come from conventional farms where they are kept in battery cages.  Others come from cage-free systems or free-range; while some are certified humane or animal welfare approved.  The labels that appear on egg cartons tell the consumer what type of food the hen is fed, the environment in which the hen lives and how the hen is treated.

The cage space for hens on average is 67 square inches, less than a single sheet of letter-sized paper.  Both hens in battery cages and cage-free hens are slaughtered at less than two years old, far less than their 5 to 8 year life span.  In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer states, “Cage-free . . . means no more or less than what it says – they are literally not in cages.  [And] one can assume that most ‘free-range’ [and] ‘cage-free’ laying hens are debeaked, drugged, force molted, and cruelly slaughtered once ‘spent.'”

The Lexicon of Sustainablity does an excellent job of putting together this video explaining the differences between egg carton labels.  Video presented by Independent Television Service (ITVS):

Approximately 95% of egg-laying hens are confined to conventional battery cages.  These cages prevent the hens from fully turning their heads, stretching their wings, roosting, nesting, and standing upright.  A typical battery cage may have a slanted floor made of wire mesh.  They are stacked several tiers high.

From Animal Liberation Front, Teaching Kids About Battery Hens:

“Hens like to peck at the ground and then squat in the dirt, ruffling their wings.  This helps them to clean their feathers and is called dustbathing.  In a battery cage they have no room to do this.  Hens also like to lay their eggs in private but when there are so many other hens around they cannot do this either.  Because hens get so frustrated, living in such cramped conditions, they often peck at each other from boredom.  To stop this, when they are very young, farmers cut off the end of their beak.  This is called debeaking.  It is very painful for the little chicks and sometimes they cannot eat for a few days as it hurts them too much.”

The European Union has banned battery cages.  The law was finalized in 1999 and had a 12-year phase-out period allowing egg-farmers time to transition away from the cages.  Earlier this year, a bill was introduced into Arizona State Legislature that would make it a Class I Misdemeanor for “a person to confine any egg-laying hen to a living space that does not allow the egg laying hen sufficient space to fully extend its limbs without touching the sides of the living space.” This did not apply to confinement “for the purposes of transportation, slaughter or veterinary care.” The bill did not make it to a third read.  Currently, there is a bill in Congress that would nearly double the living space of egg-laying hens, S. 820/H.R. 1731, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2014.

For various reasons, more and more people are raising chickens in their own backyard. Ignite #14 speaker Iain Hamp gave a talk titled, “Chicken Personality Disorder”, where he spoke about his experience raising chickens.  Iain loves his chickens so much that when he purchased his first tuxedo, the first thing he did was take a picture with his favorite hen.  Anyone considering keeping chickens will want to see this:

2714128_origThe Valley Permaculture Alliance (VPA) puts on the Tour de Coops and Root Phoenix gives a backyard chickens class.  Since 2009, the VPA has been hosting a self-guided tour of chicken coops in the valley, Tour de Coops.  The tour is designed to inspire and educate individuals interested in raising urban chickens. The craze is growing, perhaps due to sustainability issues, and more than likely you know someone who gets their eggs from hens in their own backyard. However, if you are considering getting chickens, there are zoning issues to consider in your neighborhood.  The City of Glendale and Chandler currently do not allow backyard chickens.  The VPA recently put out this statement regarding zoning laws in the City of Glendale:

“Glendale is one of the few cities in Maricopa County that does not allow homes to keep chickens in single resident zones. If you are interested in seeing this changed, please print off this letter and mail it to the Glendale Zoning Department (don’t forget to add your name and address at the top!) You can print it and send it as is or you can add in your own stories or reasons for wanting to keep chickens. Valley Permaculture Alliance is pleased to support this grassroots initiative. If you have any questions, email Brienne, a concerned Glendale resident who is working to further this cause, at”

In May this year, the City of Chandler nullified a vote against keeping backyard chickens.  Instead they decided to delay the vote for an upcoming meeting on July 11th.

Whatever you decide, as egg consumers know that the choices you make have consequences and that part of the power you have is to understand these consequences and use your purchasing power accordingly.