Ali asks: “Can you explain the difference between Cage free, free range, and pasture raised chicken and eggs?”
Unfortunately, the truth is that there are many conventional
farmers manufacturers who are very unethical and are working the system to get what they want. While the “spirit” of the various labels are promoted, the laws are very loose and provide loopholes for getting around the labels. Also, note that any of these can be “organic.”
To start this explanation, it’s best to compare it to the conventionally-raised laying hen, i.e. the most common method for producing the grocery-store egg. Conventional hens are caged hens. Hens are kept in cages large enough to house 3 or 4 hens. The cage is made of wire and slopes so that when the hen lays her eggs, the egg rolls down the cage and out onto a belt that conveys the egg to the egg collection station.
The hens don’t have room to spread their wings or move around. They are so crowded that they often start pecking and eating each other to death. Hence why it becomes necessary to cut off the pointy part of the beak.
These birds are also fed all sorts of horrific things such as other dead chickens, dead cows, litter, plastic and of course GMOs and all sorts of antibiotics to keep them sort of alive.
Caged chickens tend to be unhealthy, stressed out and die quickly. Hence why there has been a movement towards cage free egg layers.
Cage Free Chickens
Meat birds are always cage free and are raised in houses. Cage free covers everything that isn’t in a cage and therefore isn’t very specific.
Most cage free egg layers often live in the same exact quarters that their cage predecessors were in. The
farmer manufacturer simply took the cages out. Like the caged birds, they are usually packed so tightly together that they still peck each other to death and become cannabilistic.
Free Range Chickens
The idea of the free range chicken is that they are supposed to have more room to run around and be chickens. Most people think of free range birds as birds outside on pasture. Those ARE free range birds, however free range are ALSO birds raised in cage free houses (such as the one pictured above) who have doors accessing dirt lots of a certain size per bird. Free range is a very wide category encompassing everything from a nearly confined animal operation to chickens merrily chasing grasshoppers in a green field.
Free-range birds live in houses like their cage-free brethren, but they must have “access to the outdoors” for 51 percent of their lives. The key word here is “access.” There are doors in the chicken house that are opened after the chickens have grown accustomed to their surroundings.
I asked a free-range farmer at my local farmers’ market if these chickens actually go outside, and he said they almost never do since they feel safer with what they know and feel no compulsion to explore when their food and water are in the house. The USDA’s Federal Safety and Inspection Service notes the problem of free-range growers being certified as such “regardless of whether the birds use the yard.”–http://www.blogher.com/eggs-1
Salatin style chicken tractors are a pasture-raised confined chicken operation. These birds are on pasture 24 hrs a day and get to act like chickens-scratching and eating bugs. However, they are still confined with their “cage” being moved once per day to fresh grass. Generally these are only cornish cross meat birds (broilers) who grow so big and fast (and are so stupid) they can’t handle running around on pasture. The chicken tractors keep them safe while also seemingly keeping them happy and healthy. Note though that chicken tractors are ONLY used for meat chickens. Egg layers are still free in the pasture.
Pasture Raised Chickens
It seems like an overall rule that the thing that makes us the most happy is the least safe. Chickens are the absolute happiest and healthiest when raised on pasture. However, they are the most likely to be eaten by predators and this is why many farmers don’t like true free ranged birds (still, being pecked to death by other chickens is pretty dangerous too).
Pastured eggs and meat are also the healthiest for us to eat. They have the highest level of vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids and the lowest levels of toxins and stress hormones as well as lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat. Pastured chickens eat bugs and grass and are supplemented with grains. Pastured eggs have:
- 2/3 times more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D
- 7 times more beta-carotene
How to find pasture-raised eggs and meat
- Find a farmers’ market. Don’t be afraid to ask a farmer where his hens live and what they eat. I kept asking egg farmers at our market if their chickens ate bugs until I found one who smiled knowingly and said “yes.”
- Check out eatwild.com for pasture-raised options near you.
- Localharvest.com is also a good resource.
- Make friends with a locavore or two in your city who can offer suggestions. Slow Food USA is a great place to start building a community.
- Keep your own egg-laying hens. Many cities permit one or more hens in urban areas, and the symbiotic relationship between the hens and garden is amazing. Here’s a source for non-GMO feed. —http://www.blogher.com/eggs-1
Have you ever considered eating pasture raised?