Cage-free chicken differs from conventionally raised poultry in ways that impact animal welfare. Some studies show these differences may also affect your health and safety.
The more you know about your food, the better qualified you’ll be to make a smart, healthy purchase.
Chicken and eggs are great sources of protein, and there are different types to consider, raised under different conditions. You’ll typically find conventionally farmed chicken and eggs at most grocery stores. Your choices also include cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised.
In this article, we’ll explain what cage-free chicken is, and show how it differs from conventionally raised poultry. We’ll discuss the meaning of the terms free-range and pasture-raised. Finally, we’ll talk about a key benefit of cage-free eggs.
The truth about conventionally raised chicken
Caged chickens usually live in very tight quarters. Most egg-laying hens in the U.S live in small battery cages.
On average, each cage provides just 67 square inches – that’s not enough room for these birds to walk or spread their wings. The conditions faced by conventionally raised hens are among the most confining in agribusiness.
Due to their restrictive environment, caged hens aren’t able to enjoy natural behaviors that can make their lives healthier and more comfortable. Conventionally raised chickens are unable to nest, perch or engage in dust bathing, simply because there isn’t enough room.
Some producers keep poultry in enriched cages. These furnished cages feature amenities such as perches, scratching areas and nesting boxes. They come in varying sizes, and some can accommodate as many as 60 birds. Compared to conventional cages, enriched cages provide chickens with a bit more comfort.
Cage-free chicken 101
Cage-free chickens enjoy living conditions that are more open and less restrictive than those faced by commercially farmed poultry.
There are many different types of cage-free systems. They all have one thing in common: They provide chickens with cage-free spaces where they have enough room to walk, lay their eggs in nests and spread their wings.
These birds may or may not have access to the outdoors; it varies from farm to farm. At the very least, though, they have the freedom to roam the hen house. When compared to the confinement faced by caged birds, this is an improvement.
Many cage-free chicken farms are audited by third-party certification programs. American Humane Certified is a respected third-party program. For a farm to receive this program’s stamp of approval, each of its cage-free hens must have a minimum of 1.25 square feet of floor space, as well as access to nesting boxes and perches.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is another organization that certifies cage-free eggs. What does it mean when eggs are certified cage-free by the USDA? The hens that produce these eggs have unlimited access to food and water. Also, these hens have the freedom to roam when laying eggs.
Free-range vs. cage-free chicken
You may have come across free-range chicken in your local grocery store. How does free-range chicken differ from cage-free chicken?
Cage-free chickens live in cage-free housing. However, this label doesn’t offer any insight into whether the bird spent time outdoors. Some cage-free chickens live indoors, in a barn; others have outdoor access.
The free-range label has a more specific meaning. Per USDA rules, free-range birds live in cage-free environments, and they are able to venture outdoors.
What about pasture-raised chicken?
Pasture-raised chicken is also available. However, this type of chicken is harder to find than the choices discussed above.
Typically, pasture-raised birds live in a hen house at night and spend their days foraging for food in pastures, wooded areas or rangelands.
A key benefit of cage-free eggs
Some research shows cage-free eggs have lower risk of salmonella infection than those that have been conventionally raised.
Salmonella is a bacterial disease that strikes the intestinal tract. It may cause symptoms such as fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
Most people recover from salmonella, but it can be fatal under certain circumstances. According to the Mayo Clinic, a salmonella infection can be life-threatening if it spreads beyond your intestines. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, salmonella causes 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the U.S. alone.
According to the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, 15 separate scientific studies show caged eggs have a higher likelihood of being infected with salmonella than those raised in cage-free environments.
Why is this the case? One analysis by the European Food Safety Authority notes that egg-laying hens in caged systems live in environments with a relatively large flock size and a dense population of birds. These conditions make it easier for infections to spread.
Additionally, relative to a cage-free environment, cages can be harder to disinfect. This may lead to infestation by disease carriers such as rodents, flies and litter beetles.
Now that you know a little bit about large-scale egg production, the egg industry and the differences separating the various types of chicken and eggs, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision when making a purchase.
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