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Cage Free Eggs Are Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be

Ryan Gosling Hey Girl Eggs
Here’s Ryan Gosling of acting and “Hey Girl” meme fame (which says much more about women than the actor himself). Never heard of this meme? Enjoy it by searching the googles. 🙂

The results of a 3-year study were released last March and they show that the health and well-being for cage-free hens and the people who care for them is actually worse than the conventional caged system. This comes at a time when visibility for how our eggs are produced is on the rise. Recently, actor Ryan Gosling wrote an open letter to Costco requesting that they begin selling eggs raised by cage-free chickens.  A few weeks later, Brad Pitt and comedian Bill Maher, and the New York Times Op-Ed page joined him in a call to “Free the Chickens.” The study shows why cage-free eggs probably isn’t giving them what they want.

Cage-Free Birds Are Not Significantly Healthier, But They Might Be Happier

The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, which conducted the research includes the American Humane Association, McDonald’s, Tyson Foods and many other large scale egg producers and consumers. The study compared the three most used methods for egg production: Conventional Cage (which provides 95% of the eggs in the United States), Enriched Colony, and Cage Free Aviary. Overall, the cage-free system compared poorly to the other two methods in its impacts on hen health and well-being, worker health and safety, food affordability, and the environment.

If that surprises you, it might help to take a look at what “cage-free” actually means. Up to 50,000 birds live in one “house” divided into aviary sections of 1,660 hens with open floor space for dust-bathing and roaming, and upper levels with nesting areas, water and feed.

Cage-Free Illustration


This compares to 100,000 birds in a conventional caged house, kept in stacked cages, and to Enriched Colonies, where 50,000 birds live in stacked cages in a house but have more space per bird as well as areas for dust-bathing and scratching.

Enriched Colony Illustration


What researchers found was that the leg bones of the cage-free birds were stronger, and they definitely exhibited more of a chicken’s natural behavior. But mortality rates were worse and cannibalism and damage to the hens’ keels from hitting perches were both substantially worse than hens in conventional caged systems. The people taking care of them had substantially worse exposure to particulate matter and endotoxins, probably because of the manure and bedding material on the open floors.  Gathering eggs was also more difficult since workers sometimes had to crawl on the floor to collect those that hadn’t been laid in nesting boxes.

Chicken Well-Being Results
One thing to note about how the results are displayed, is that they are relative to the Conventional Cage System which produces 95% of eggs in the U.S. This provides a picture of whether the new designs have resulted in overall improvements, but makes no judgement about the conventional cage system.

Other Results

Food Safety
There was little difference in food safety, though cage-free eggs had higher levels of Campylobacter, spp (a bacteria that can cause food poisoning) especially when hens laid their eggs on the floor.

Egg CostsEnvironment
Cage-free eggs have a slightly larger carbon footprint and greater natural resource use than Conventional Cage raised eggs. This is because a cage-free system houses about half the number of birds.

Food Cost
Cage-free eggs are more expensive because of higher rearing costs, hen mortality and lower production per hen.

You can check out more results here.

So What Does This Mean To You?

If consumers want to have more humanely raised eggs, this study demonstrates that we haven’t yet found the method for doing that at a factory scale. On the other hand, the results of the research, along with the visibility about the issue provided by interested celebrities may provide opportunities for those of you raising pasture-based eggs to grow your businesses.

If you’re raising eggs at a smaller scale, your customers might appreciate knowing the difference between cage-free eggs and pasture-raised eggs as they make their purchasing decisions. Most folks probably imagine that the picture on the Costco egg carton depicts the lives of cage free hens. Sharing the difference between what they imagine and what is actually happening is a conversation of a thousand words that you can have by simply sharing pictures.

How hens look on a Costco egg carton.
How hens look on a Costco egg carton.
What cage-free hens look like.
What cage-free hens look like.

One More Thing….

This research, combined with what people say they want, how much they’re willing or able to pay for that, and how today’s food supply chain works are all part of a larger discussion producers and consumers can have about how we feed our communities and what it takes to make a living doing that. Are there ways of providing large quantities of eggs outside a factory setting that we have yet to explore? Are we willing to pay the cost of humanely raised eggs? What changes do we need to make to our lives, and our laws and regulations to achieve the results we’re hoping for?


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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. The young girl who worked for me previously got a job at a Mennonite farm that raised Certified Organic Welfare Approved Cage-free eggs for Whole Foods. There were THOUSANDS of birds crammed into a large barn with little ventilation. She was given two five gallon buckets–one to pick up eggs out of the litter that weren’t laid in the nesting areas and the other to pick up the dead birds. She was given no mask, gloves, boots or otherwise. After she had worked there three days, they paid her—$5/hour. It was less than minimum because they were paying her cash. They refused to allow their own children to work in the barns. She quit and called me to say, “Now I understand….”

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