Definition of caged and free-range eggs

If your brain feels scrambled when it comes to understanding the difference between free-range, caged, organic and descriptors applied to eggs, you’re not alone.

How do you tell the difference between free-range, pasture-raised, caged, barn-laid and just plain fresh eggs? Why has it become so complicated? The answer lies in the demand for eggs. Without a form of factory-style farming, the required number of eggs for the population’s demand would not be produced.

By definition, free-range implies the bird has been raised in an open environment with room to move around. But many of the eggs we buy as free-range are from chickens that do not fit this definition. This is because of the conflicting accreditation schemes in Australia.

The voluntary free-range accreditation scheme of the Australian Egg Corporation has a vastly different definition of free-range than the one endorsed by the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia. Lack of regulation makes it difficult for you to know how free-range chickens really are.

According to the Australian Egg Corporation, free-range indicates:

  • Hens are housed in sheds with access to an outdoor range
  • Stocking capacity within sheds doesn’t exceed 14 birds per square metre
  • Maximum of 1500 birds per hectare
  • Beak trimming is permitted.

The Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia definition indicates:

  • Unrestricted access to free-range during daylight hours
  • Stocking capacity within sheds doesn’t exceed seven birds per square metre
  • Maximum of 750 birds per hectare
  • Beak trimming is not permitted.

The standards are obviously different. Although free-range eggs produced by the Australian Egg Corporation standards are better than cage eggs, these bird are still debeaked (which means that they can’t peck the ground or groom) and live in overcrowded spaces.

Cage eggs

Cage eggs are termed as such because the chickens are housed in small confined cages where they have access to food and water but no room to flap their wings or move around. The cage egg industry is a classic example of factory farming where the only real consideration is the number of eggs per dollar at the end of the day. Cage eggs have less nutritional value as the diet of caged birds contains no fresh food or grass.

Barn-laid eggs

Barn-laid eggs are laid by hens housed indoors, but not in conventional caged systems.

Barn laid hens:

  • Have restricted space to flap their wings
  • Are still kept at quite a high density
  • Are usually debeaked
  • Have nest boxes to lay their eggs.

RSPCA-approved barn-laid eggs also have the following requirements:

  • Hens are not debeaked
  • Stocking density must be no more that nine birds per square metre
  • Adequate perches and nest boxes must be provided
  • Barn-laid is certainly better than cage eggs, however, hens still are unable to forage, scratch and peck as they do in a free-range system.

Certified Organic Eggs

Apart from eggs from your own chickens, certified organic eggs are the best option. Certified organic eggs are always free-range and are free from hormones and antibiotics. Chickens are fed certified organic feed and have access to pasture.

In certified organic laying hens have:

  • Permanent access to weatherproof housing with sufficient perches to enable normal roosting for birds
  • Stocking capacity cannot exceed 16kg per square metre
  • If artificial lighting is used to supplement daylight the total must not exceed 16 hours per day
  • The use of growth promotants and hormones is prohibited
  • Debeaking is not allowed
  • Farm must adhere to organic farming principles and restrictions
  • Several certifying bodies govern organic eggs, so look out for their certification logos on the carton.

You can view a comprehensive summary by Choice magazine of the various egg brands here.