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.
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 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.
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.