What's better to buy, organic eggs or cage-free eggs?

By: Chris Obenschain  | 

Some eggs aren't all they're cracked up to be. See more pictures of foods that cost under $5.
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The United States is the world's largest supplier of eggs and poultry, with nearly 100 billion (yes, billion!) eggs produced every year [source: USDA]. This gives people a wide selection to choose from, but for many conscientious consumers, picking up eggs at the grocery store is about more than just opening the carton and checking for cracks. While price and condition are always important, the health and welfare of the hens laying the eggs has become a significant consideration for many egg lovers. There are several different terms that describe the conditions of egg-laying hens' lifestyles, and two of the most common are cage-free and organic.

All things considered, which is better, cage-free or organic eggs? The short answer is organic, but it's a little more complicated than that. In order to understand the benefits and drawbacks of cage-free and organic eggs, it's necessary to examine the conditions in which most eggs are produced.

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Battery Cages

The vast majority of eggs produced and consumed in the United States come from conventional, large-scale battery cage operations. Hens spend their entire lives with up to eight other birds in wire cages as small as 67 square inches, a space about the size of a single sheet of letter-sized paper [source: Humane Society]. These hens are so cramped that most are unable to stretch their wings or engage in other natural behaviors, such as nesting, perching and dust-bathing. They don't have access to natural light, and as many as 100,000 birds may be grouped together under a single roof [source: USDA].

However, it's not just the animals' welfare that has people concerned. Battery cage birds are commonly given extensive amounts of antibiotics and other drugs, to the point that traces of these drugs can frequently be found in store-bought chicken [source: McDonald]. Of course, hens' consumption of drugs affects their eggs, which is one of the primary reasons that organic eggs have steadily risen in popularity over the past decade.

Cage-free Eggs

Cage-free birds engage in such natural behaviors as nesting, walking and stretching their wings, but, like the birds forced to live in battery cages, they're usually pumped full of antibiotics. Most live in flocks of thousands of hens inside warehouses and are never granted access to the outdoors. However, most experts agree that cage-free birds live in significantly better conditions than those confined in conventional production systems.

Organic Eggs

Even though organic eggs have no added nutritional benefits over conventional and cage-free eggs, for both health and humanitarian reasons, organic eggs are a concerned consumer's best bet. The organic label is the only label regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, which attests that the hens that laid these eggs are healthy and engage in natural behaviors. In short, this means that the hens are cage-free, have access to the outdoors and direct sunlight with an option for shade, are provided with an exercise area and are fed certified organic feed that contains no pesticides, drugs, antibiotics or animal byproducts. Third-party auditors evaluate each organic producer's compliance on an individual basis.

Originally Published: Aug 12, 2009

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Organic or Cage-free Eggs FAQ

Are organic eggs healthier than regular eggs?
Slightly, though these still quite a bit of disagreement over what benefits organic food actually offers. Organic eggs do have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and vitamin E. For some people, it's important to limit their consumption of antibiotics, in which case organic eggs are a better choice.
Do cage-free eggs taste better?
Generally there is no taste difference between cage-free eggs and eggs from chickens kept in battery cages. The biggest difference in taste comes from farm-fresh eggs and grocery store eggs. Fresh eggs are more flavorful, have a brighter yolk, and richer tasting.
Are cage-free eggs ethical?
They're more ethical than traditional eggs where chickens are kept in very small wire cages that prevent birds from stretching their wings in giant buildings void of natural light. But cage-free chickens are still housed in tightly packed buildings - they're just not confined to a cage. While this is definitely less unethical, it's not exactly ethical. They're also still debeaked and pumped full of antibiotics and other drugs.
What is the difference between organic and cage-free eggs?
Organic chickens are healthy and are able to engage in natural behaviors. They're cage-free, have access to the outdoors and direct sunlight, are provided with an exercise area, and are fed certified organic feed. The organic label is the only label that's actually regulated by the USDA and a third-party also certifies that the conditions and chickens at a given producer are up to par. Unlike what the name suggests, cage-free chickens aren't necessarily kept in good conditions. Though they don't live in wire cages and are able to partake in natural behaviors, they still packed into a warehouse with thousands of over chickens and no access to the outdoors.
What are pasture-raised eggs?
Pasture-raised is a step up from organic and can more commonly be purchased from a local farm compared to a grocery store. Animal welfare is top of mind for these farmers. The eggs come from chickens that are quite literally raised in a pasture with plenty of access to sunlight and fresh air, and live a more natural life. They scratch and peck for bugs and grubs, roam freely and are given access to high-quality feed. Some pasture-raised eggs and chickens are also "Certified Humane", which means that hens are given 108 square feet of outdoor space per bird, as well as access to a structure for shade and cover.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Greene, Catherine, Lydia Oberholtzer and Enrique Lopez. "Organic Poultry and Eggs capture High Price Premiums and Growing Share of Specialty Markets." USDA. December 2006. (July 27, 2009).http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/LDP/2006/12Dec/LDPM15001/ldpm15001.pdf
  • Greene, Catherine and Lydia Oberholtzer. "Organic Poultry Gaining in Specialty Market Competition." Amber Waves. USDA. February 2007. (July 27, 2009).http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/February07/Findings/Organic.htm
  • The Humane Society of the United States. "Cage-free Production vs. Battery-Cage Egg Production." 2009. (July 28, 2009).http://www.hsus.org/farm/camp/nbe/compare.html
  • "An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Meat, Egg, and Dairy Industries." 2009. (July 28, 2009).http://www.hsus.org/farm/resources/research/welfare/welfare_overview.html
  • McDonald, Clifford, Shannon Rossiter, Constance Mackinson, Yong Yu Wang, et al. "Quinupristin-Dalfopristin-Resistant Enterococcus Faecium and Chicken and in Human Stool Specimens." The New England Journal of Medicine. Oct. 18, 2001. (July 28, 2009).http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/345/16/1155
  • Perryman, Shirley. "Organic Eggs Best? Separating Myth From Fact." Denver Post. July 15, 2009. (July 27, 2009).http://www.denverpost.com/ci_12828788?source=bb
  • Wolcott, Jennifer. "'Cage-free' Eggs: Not All They're Cracked Up to Be?" The Christian Science Monitor. Oct. 27, 2004. (July 28, 2009).http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1027/p15s01-lifo.html