Cage-free eggs are a hot-ticket item and people are buying more of them than ever. Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Starbucks are just three of the massive dining chains who have committed to the cage-free switch, led by consumer pressure. Right now, 8.5% of all eggs sold are cage-free, up from 5.5% this time last year (1). Although egg prices are down from what they were last summer, cage-free eggs still clock in at >300% more expensive than regular eggs (2). Well… but isn’t that a good thing? Are cage-free eggs better? The answer… well, it’s complicated.
Are Cage-Free Eggs Better?
Agriculture isn’t as black and white as you might think. It’s give and take. You see, the idea of cage-free chickens innately resonates with our hearts. It’s emotional. In fact, a lot of our food decisions are emotional, that’s why we choose one product over another. To us buying cage-free eggs says, “I’m the type of person who cares about animals.” While I’m not disagreeing, I’m also not necessarily agreeing. There are some surprising food truths you should know about cage-free versus conventional-cage eggs (AKA “normal eggs”) to make an informed decision, all marketing aside.
A recent study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply compared four different types of eggs. To avoid your eyes glazing over, I’ve limited this summary to their findings between cage-free eggs and regular eggs only (3).
Pros to cage-free eggs
- Substantially more diverse behavior: Cage-free chickens were able to perform more natural bird behaviors including nesting, perching, scratching, and dust bathing.
- Increased bone strength: Cage-free chickens had the strongest leg and wing bones, and least incidence of bone breakage.
- Improved feather condition: Cage-free hens had less feather loss than conventional hens, though their feathers were dirtier (21% compared to 10%).
- Decreased foot damage: Cage-free chickens had less foot damage than conventional chickens (2% compared to 10%), though damages incurred were significantly more severe.
Cons to cage-free eggs
- Doubled death rate: Chickens have a pecking order, or a social dominance hierarchy which is more significantly observed in cage-free conditions. This heightened pecking order (the hens peck at one another either causing injury or “moving” lower-ranked chickens out of their way from locations they prefer to nest, or from food and water), coupled with increased aggression in cage-free hens, contributed to doubled mortality. Cannibalism, hypocalcemia and emaciation were top reasons of death in hens lower on the pecking order. Increased mobilization led to increased death from getting caught in the hen-house structure. Additionally, there was greater instance of chickens found rotten because of the difficulty in finding dead chickens in odd locations by workers.
- Greater ergonomic hazards and pollutant inhalation for laborers: Workers in a cage-free environment were exposed to significantly higher concentrations of airborne particles, including dust concentrations and emissions, and endotoxin. Ergonomic risks in cage-free conditions were mostly related to collecting eggs from the litter floor and removal of hens. Air quality and manure management was worse in cage-free hen-houses.
- Increased keel (breastbone) damage: Higher keel damage in cage-free chickens (15% abnormalities compared to 0%) is indicative of greater stress on the skeletal system from egg laying.
- Higher production cost: Production costs associated with cage-free hens were greater than a conventional system by 30 to 40% in all categories, including labor, capital, and feed.
- Increased carbon footprint: Cage-free chickens had higher excretion of nutrients consumed indicating a poorer feed conversion. PM emissions and efficiency of natural resource use was worse in cage-free hen-houses. Greenhouse gas emissions were similar in both populations.
Of the results published, stress physiology, environmental comfort, and feeding and drinking were similar in both populations.
My intent is not to persuade you to choose one type of egg over another, but instead display that there are trade-offs between each type of system. Whichever your preference may be, it’s important to recognize chickens in both systems are healthy. If they weren’t healthy they wouldn’t be producing eggs.
Chicken farmers are committed to developing the most cost-effective (higher cost for them means higher cost for you), safe, and sustainable product possible to deliver nutritious food to consumers (4). That being said, the results of this comparison beg the question, is it necessary to “go cage-free” when sustainability is lower for this system? Are consumers “bullying” farmers, who may see a better yield and better conditions for the workers with conventional practices, by demanding more and more cage-free eggs? Or is there room for both cage-free and conventional eggs to co-exist in the market? You decide.
Hey and after you decide, check out this yummy whole wheat quiche florentine recipe you can make with whichever type of eggs you prefer ☺️.
Disclosures: None. This post was not created in partnership with any brand or product. This blog post was adapted from a previous blog post written by me on June 13, 2016 at the URL: https://www.elevatenutritionconsulting.com/single-post/2016/07/13/Should-you-be-buying-cagefree-eggs and has since been moved to this site.
- American Egg Board. About the US egg industry. Accessed June 2, 2016 & June 16, 2017. Retrieved from http://www.aeb.org/farmers-and-marketers/industry-overview.
- USDA National Retail Report. Advertised prices for shell eggs & egg products to consumers at major retail supermarket outlets. Accessed June 13, 2016 & June 16, 2017. Retrieved from http://search.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/pywretailegg.pdf.
- Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply. Final research results report. Download here.
- National Association of Egg Farmers. Egg farmers set the record straight in newspapers across nation.” Retrieved from http://www.eggfarmers.org/item/egg-farmers-set-the-record-straight-in-newspapers-across-nation-2.