The incredible, edible source of confusion
EC: Cage-Free Egg Labels Don't Always Mean What You Think
Credit: Photo by Bloomberg via Getty IMages

It's not always easy to be a conscious consumer, especially when it comes to food. Knowing that cage-free eggs sound like a better alternative to regular eggs is a no-brainer. When McDonald's announced they'd be using cage-free eggs by 2025, it seemed that big companies decided that it was a good idea as well. Cage-free eggs sound a lot like free-range eggs, antibiotic-free eggs, pasture-raised eggs, and certified organic eggs. That is, like they involve happy, healthy hens laying eggs on a countryside, where the grain is plentiful and the time's always right to cluck your days away.

But what if your cage-free eggs came from hens that weren't able to go outside? Or from factory farms that look more like an industrial plant than a quaint pasture? Worse yet, how would you feel if the hens producing cage-free eggs were actually still in cages—albeit roomier ones? As paradoxical as it might sound, all of these options still fit the bill for cage-free egg classification, and this is one of the many reasons why different egg classifications are so hard to figure out. There are so many different (and sometimes meaningless) labels.

The confusing world of what egg carton labels mean is, in some respects, designed for deception. Terms like "farm fresh eggs" mean nothing at all, unless you're literally buying your eggs directly from a farm. "Hormone-free eggs" is another nonsense term, since it's illegal to give chickens growth hormones in the United States (thus making all eggs hormone-free by default). And "free-range eggs" is the most deceptive label of them all, since farmers can provide as little as a screened-in enclosure for hens walk around in.

If you want to get thoroughly confused, ponder the definition of cage-free eggs. As it stands now, the baseline for what constitutes as cage-free eggs is one square foot of space per hen. This classification makes no requirement for hens to have access to the outdoors. Most puzzlingly, it doesn't exclude farmers from using larger cages and confinement systems, known as furnished (or enriched) cages. So cage-free eggs could indeed come from hens kept in cages. In fact, the government's cage-free standard is so definitionally thin that most egg producers opt for something called third-party certification, which provides an additional layer of scrutiny (and additional consumer confidence) for their goods.

If that's not perplexing enough, consider the idea that furnished cages can be better for egg-laying hens than free-range accommodations. Anne Vits, a product manager for poultry vaccines at Lohmann Animal Health, published a two-year study that found that hens in enriched cages suffered fewer bone defects and benefitted from conditions that allowed them to access to perches, nest boxes, and dust baths. Another study found that hens in furnished cages weighed considerably more than their counterparts in conventional, battery-style cages, and suffered from fewer health issues as well. And by keeping hens from standing in their own waste, as is the case in most free-range facilities, enhanced cages can actually keep hens healthier than they would be if they had unfettered access to a barn. These cage systems can also prevent hens from picking on one another, so they avoid the "pecking order" process that causes weaker birds to undergo physical and emotional stress. And just like that, science threw a wrench in your ethical grocery list.

So if you're still feeling stumped about the most ethical, cruelty-free egg designation out there, don't fret. Anything is better for the hens than a farm with battery-style cages—even if the alternatives were not created equally. After all, the real reason McDonald's and other companies went cage-free was due to customer demand. The cost behind an industry shift toward cage-free eggs isn't cheap: Farmers spend anywhere from $30 to $60 per hen to convert their battery-style facilities into cage-free facilities, meaning that most egg farms will fork over $60 million before all is said and done. So even if the notion of an enhanced cage doesn't make you feel great (but a $5 carton of free-range eggs isn't in your budget), know that your carton confusion is contributing to a solution that is cleaning up the poultry industry, one dozen eggs at a time.