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The Difference Between Cage-free, Pasture-raised & Free-range Chickens

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Jul 21st, 2022

A trip to the grocery store means brewing through a hundred different brands with a million different terms and certifications plastered all over them. Especially when it comes to meat and animal products. 

Take chicken and eggs, for eggs-ample (hah!). You can choose from hormone-free pasture-raised chicken breasts, free-range organic eggs, antibiotic-free cage-free wings and much, much more. There are so many terms and labels on our food nowadays that it can feel overwhelming. After all, how do these labels actually affect the quality and creation of what we eat?

Here are a few of the common terms and labels that you’re likely to come across in the poultry industry. 

Poultry terms to know for chicken and eggs

Conventional/caged/battery cage

Space per chicken: 67 square inches

Feed type: corn- or soy-based diets

The majority of egg-laying chickens in the country are battery cage hens, meaning they live in a space smaller than a sheet of paper that’s often shared with other hens. The crowded and confined cages leave no room for the birds to spread their wings, much less fly or stretch. 

The small spaces also rob these chickens of the privacy and space in which to lay their eggs. The instinct to nest and roost are ingrained in a bird’s psyche, and having no space or resources to do either makes these birds’ lives miserable ones. 

Cage-free

Space per chicken: less than 1 square foot

Feed type: corn- or soy-based diets

Cage-free chickens don’t live in cages, true, but their living space is no less crowded. 

Under the current USDA regulations, “cage-free” means that chickens are simply not kept in cages. There are no requirements for space or access to the outdoors, either, so there’s a lot of gray area in terms of what this actually means for a chicken’s life.

Generally, though, cage-free hens are kept in large warehouses in flocks up to 40,000 strong with no access to the outdoors. These warehouses allow the chickens to fly, stretch their wings, roost on perches and lay their eggs in nests. Although these warehouses are still crowded and allow for very little privacy, there are certainly more advantages for these hens than if they were raised in battery cages.

Free-range

Space per chicken: 2 square feet 

Feed type: corn- or soy-based diets

The free-range definition is a vague one that generally ends up giving chickens a similar lifestyle to their cage-free counterparts. 

Free-range chickens are allotted a minimum of 2 square feet of outdoor space, though there are no requirements for how long a chicken can go outside, if at all. These chickens are also kept in large barns or warehouses with space to fly and stretch, but the only difference is that there is a door that a farmer could open to let the chickens outside. Whether that ever happens is up to the farmer to decide. 

Pasture-raised

Space per chicken: 108 square feet of outdoor space

Feed type: corn- or soy-based feed, grass, worms & bugs

Pasture-raised chickens experience a significantly better quality of life than battery-caged, cage-free and free-range chickens. 

To qualify as a pasture-raised chicken farm, each hen must be allowed 108 square feet of outdoor space, plus an indoor barn for cover. This requirement is not part of any USDA regulation, but it is required for the chickens and eggs to be labeled as certified humane

These chickens usually spend the day outdoors and come into the barn at night, giving them plenty of time and space to roam around in the fresh air. These chickens are fed a diet that consists of some feed or grain, but a large portion of their food comes from the grass, worms and bugs they find outside. To keep these resources plentiful, farmers rotate the flocks into different sections of the field to keep the supply fresh all year ‘round. 

Other terms to know

Hormone-free

This label, while it sounds nothing but positive, is a fairly misleading term that does more for marketing than it does in describing the nutrition of the eggs or meat it’s labeling.

It’s illegal to give hormones to poultry in the United States, so a “hormone-free” label on a carton of eggs or pack of chicken breasts is about as necessary as a label saying "free from Godzilla attacks." If you see it on any poultry item, then it’s just there for show. 

This goes for antibiotics-free eggs, too, though it is more common in the poultry meat industry. 

Organic

This is a USDA term that has strict requirements for eligibility.

Organic eggs or chicken meat must come from hens that are:

  • Free-range and cage-free
  • Able to freely access the outdoors
  • Fed a diet that is free of pesticides, fertilizers, animal by-products and chemical additives
  • Have a natural molting process (no starvation-forced molting)
  • Hormone- and antibiotic-free (although they would have been anyway)  

Eggs and chickens must meet all these requirements to meet USDA Organic Certification Requirements.

Vegetarian-fed

Chickens, like us humans, are omnivores, meaning that they eat meat and vegetables. 

Most chickens get their protein from bugs, worms and insects that they find while rummaging through soil and grass. If they are vegetarian-fed, it means they are likely being fed a diet of soy- or corn-based feed that’s strengthened with amino acids. In other words, vegetarian-fed chickens are not pasture-raised. 

Next time you’re perusing through the poultry aisle, keep these terms in mind as you factor in the quality, production and ethics that go into all the different foods you’re choosing between!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Pexels

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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