Pastured, Free Range, Cage-free

What's the difference and what do these terms mean?

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Do You Know Your Poultry?

Confusion is easy unless you know a little background.

Most people know that 95 percent of all the eggs in America come from battery caged chickens. These are the wire cages featured on animal welfare sites, often accompanied by explanations that these birds spend their lives in less room than a sheet of notebook paper. These are the flocks that sickened and killed people a couple of years ago.

Animal welfare groups publicize this production model to encourage legislation that would ban such practices. In the last couple of years, some heavy hitters, from Burger King to WalMart, have signed pledges to discontinue buying these battery cage eggs in 6-10 years.

One positive step away from these wire cages is what is called cage-free. Sometimes you’ll hear the term loose housed to describe this. In this model, birds in a giant factory house can at least run around. They aren’t confined to a tiny wire cage, or cell. Animal welfarists tout this as a huge victory, but is it really? Chickens aren’t potty trained so when they go to cage-free, their living conditions arguably become more unsanitary.

In the cages, their droppings (manure) fall through the wire bottom and down into a pit. Without the cages, the birds create more fecal particulate air and can’t get away from their feces. Yes, they can move around, but moving around on their feces may not be a step in the right direction. The egg industry is using this nuance to attack cage-free production, hoping to derail it before these long-year buyer commitments kick in. I can assure you that the big buyers making these pledges have no intention of using cage-free eggs; they’re hoping that the industry and their taxpayer-funded scientists at land grant universities will be able to sway public opinion that the scientific way to grow eggs is in secure battery cages.

The next step toward chicken-friendliness beyond cage-free is free range. Most people think of free range as the bucolic hen on green grass with a red gambrel barn in the background. Actually, the USDA definition of free range only addresses freedom to move all appendages. It speaks of range of movement, not range as in pasture, open range, home on the range. This is the kind of clever-speak the industry connives to buy favor without function.

In the case of organic certification, the free range requirement is a joke. The watchdog group Cornucopia hired an airplane last year and flew over many organic egg operations to document the lack of required range. They sent the pictures to the USDA, the agency charged with policing organic standards. Rather than being incensed at the blatant disregard for the requirements, the USDA snubbed Cornucopia’s pictures and responded condescendingly.

The result of all this is that free range is now more meaningless than cage-free. It can be anything from bucolic pastures to confined birds able to flap their wings. That’s a pretty big variability.

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Which leads to a new term, pastured. The reason I like the term pastured is because it speaks to the idea of green forage. This is not a dirt yard. It’s not a gravel 3-foot strip outside a massive confinement house. What makes a piece of real estate a pasture is green grass. Even a corn field is not called pasture. Although the USDA does not currently have a licensable definition of pastured eggs (thank goodness), the term obviously implies fresh grass to both eat and tread. I suppose someone could mow grass and bring it into a building to technically comply with the pastured idea, but in reality that doesn’t happen much.

As with all definition nuances like this, my advice is to visit the farm and see for yourself. If a farmer appears reluctant for you to come and visit, quit buying from that farmer. Don’t worry about your ignorance; you’ll be able to compare farms astutely once you’ve visited a couple. The good ones always stand out. Don’t worry, you’ll notice.

As for the long time period for some of these buyers to make the leap, farms like Polyface, with true blue pastured eggs, could meet the demand quickly if we had real commitment. We don’t need a decade; all we need is a year or two. The problem is that these corporate outfits want to milk business as usual for as long as possible; they aren’t really committed to anything different, regardless of what you may hear from animal welfarists.

Get pastured eggs from a farm that welcomes your visit where you feel comfortable communing with the animals. Then you’ll be part of the solution too.