Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Coming everywhere – cage-free egg laws

If you are one of my readers that live in Colorado, you have probably heard that all eggs produced and sold in in this state as of January 2023 must now be Cage Free. What does that mean – not only for the chickens but also for you, the consumer? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Colorado is not the only state to pass such laws. Other states with similar laws are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah
  • Washington

Although some will hail this trend and those states that have passed these laws, only two of those states are on the list of top 10 egg producing states. Here is that breakdown.

  1. Iowa
  2. Indiana
  3. Ohio
  4. Pennsylvania
  5. Texas
  6. Georgia
  7. Michigan
  8. North Carolina
  9. California
  10. Arkansas

If your state isn’t one of those listed with cage-free laws now, it may soon be as there is a nation-wide effort to get these laws in place. Each state’s law may be different. I will lay out Colorado’s law but if you are in another state, you will need to research that law to understand the definition.

According to Colorado law:

  • The chickens must have enclosure measurements of no less than 1 square foot per hen.
  • By 1 January 2025, there needs to be a “cage-free housing system”, which has requirements for more space.
  • Farm owners must obtain a certificate that affirms that the eggs produced are compliant with regulations, which must be renewed annually. The farmers are responsible for hiring an inspection provider.
  • After certification, egg cartons must contain the statement “CO-COM”. (Note there is no requirement to have “cage free” on the label although producers will most likely do this.)
  • The requirements do not apply to farming operations with less than 3,000 hens.

So, just what is the definition of cage free? The USDA states that “eggs labeled ‘cage-free’ or ‘from free-roaming hens’ are laid by hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house.” Note that nothing is said about being outdoors and, indeed, the hens may spend their entire lives indoors. They do, however, have more space to spread their wings, dig around in the dirt, etc.

Going cage free does mean egg prices are going to go up. One expense is the conversion of the facilities to the required cage-free environment. It also requires much more work from the farmers. One Maine farmer stated that he went from a flock of more than 33,000 hens down to 3,000. But, he had to increase his employees from five to eight just to help with the extra work taking care of the chickens. That all means higher egg prices.

Cage-free eggs aren’t just more expensive because farmers must convert their facilities. They also require more work from the farmers. The chickens tend to lay their eggs wherever they want to, not just in their designated nest boxes. That means the farmers must collect the eggs more frequently and the eggs shells get dirtier, resulting in more work to clean them.

Another interesting consequence of going cage free is discussed in an article by Watt Poultry and that is the possible demise of local family farms. The article argues that many of the consumers who desire cage-free eggs are the same people who prefer to frequent local, family-owned businesses. However, the push towards the practice of cage free egg production is expensive and may cause many small farms to close.

If cage-free is not enough for you, the next step would be to buy “free range” eggs. According to the USDA, “free range eggs must be produced by cage-free hens housed in a building, room or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle”. So, if you want to make sure your eggs come from hens that can actually get outdoors, you should choose “free range” rather than just “cage free”.

Pasture-Raised – pasture-raised is not a USDA regulated term. That means it is third-party certifiers that set the standards. Although there will be variation between brands, the general meaning of the term is that the hens are given the opportunity to roam on green, grassy pastures every day. In general, every hen has from 35 to 108 square feet of pasture to herself.

For eggs to be labeled organic, the hens must be raised according to USDA National Organic Program guidelines. The hens must be allowed to range freely and given access to the outdoors. They must be fed an organic diet and, if they do not have access to a pasture area, they must be provided with sprouted grains or fresh plants on a daily basis.

Antibiotic and/or Hormone Free – most eggs in the United States are antibiotic free, since antibiotics decrease egg production, and all eggs are hormone free since it is illegal to give hormones to chickens.

Vitamin Enhanced – these are eggs laid by hens whose diets may include things like alfalfa, rice bran and sea kelp to produce eggs with more Vitamin B, A, D & E in the eggs.

Omega-3 Enriched – eggs laid by hens whose diets include things like flaxseed, algae & fish oils to boost the omega-3 content.

There are other terms that egg producers will put on their cartons but there is no regulatory or policy guidance from the USDA or the FDA. These include:

  • Farm Fresh
  • Natural or Naturally-raised – this term simply means that nothing was added to the egg like flavorings, brines or coloring. All eggs meet this criterion.
  • Animal Friendly
  • Happy Hens

There are non-governmental organizations that have certification programs that go above and beyond what the USDA requires. One is “Certified Humane”. Some companies that prescribe to those standards are Eggland’s Best, Kirkland Signature Cage-Free, Safeway Lucerne Cage-Free, Pete & Gerry’s, Nellie’s, Organic Valley and Trader Joe’s Pasture Raised.

Are any of these eggs healthier than others? Some of the egg producers say yes. The USDA says there are no significant nutritional differences between cage-free/free-range/etc. and conventional eggs. Rather, it is a choice you make based on the welfare of the chickens and your budget. The cage-free eggs I used to buy for $2.50 per dozen are now between $7 and $8 per dozen. In my state, I no longer have the choice to buy conventional eggs. If you still have the choice, what do you choose?