Eggs used to be so simple. Shoppers could choose between extra-large or medium and brown or white. Today’s supermarket egg case offers an array of selections, like organic, natural, and free-range, but cage-free has been getting “egg-stra” attention.
Caged hens. Most eggs sold in supermarkets and used in the production of other foods come from caged hens. These cages house 5 to 7 hens each, leaving a tight space for hens to live in and lay their eggs. Confined quarters make natural chicken behaviors, such as perching, scratching for insects, and nesting, impossible. Animal welfare proponents say preventing these natural behaviors is cruel and causes stress that makes hens more vulnerable to disease.
Cage-free hens. The increase in public opposition to caged hens has caused a growing number of producers to turn to cage-free systems. Most cage-free hens live inside large barns in flocks of several thousands. They are free to walk, perch and lay their eggs in nests, but are most always kept inside. While quality of life is much improved, both cage and cage-free systems practice some less than humane treatments, such as killing male chicks upon hatching, burning beaks off, and slaughtering at less than two years old.
Egg safety. Food safety measures for U.S. egg farmers are meant to protect against foodborne illness. However, the safety of caged systems, specifically the threat of salmonella contamination, has been questioned. While research by the European Centre for Disease Prevention has shown a reduced risk of human illness caused by salmonella in cage-free housing systems in the EU, the U.S. egg industry differs enough to make comparisons difficult. Studies in this country have found a greater prevalence of salmonella in cage-free than in cage systems. Safety should not be an issue in either system when properly managed.
The choice is up to you. Several factors may influence the decision between caged and cage-free eggs. It really comes down to what’s most important to the consumer. If cost is a consideration, cage-free eggs are more expensive because of higher production and lower volume per farm. But, supporting a more humane treatment of hens may be a priority. Be aware, however, that the type of housing does not affect the nutrient content of eggs. That is determined among hen breeds, and by the type of feed. A scanning of egg labels will reveal eggs laid by hens with specific diets, such as higher omega-3 feed, may produce more nutritious eggs.