Conventional agriculture raises hens for egg production indoors and in cages, a practice that has generated criticism concerning the negative animal welfare, environmental and nutritional impacts of such a system. Free-range hens that produce eggs, on the other hand, must be given access to the outdoors, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations (see References 1).
Price comparison between conventional and free-range eggs is difficult since the USDA does not collect data on free-range egg prices or sales. The closest egg category the USDA tracks to free-range is organic eggs. Like free-range eggs, National Organic Program regulations require that organically raised hens have outdoor access; however, additional regulations concerning the animals' feed and other aspects of care can drive prices for organic eggs above those for free-range eggs (see References 2). According to 2006 data collected by the USDA, conventional eggs cost, on average, $1.36 per dozen. Organic eggs, on the other hand, cost an average of $3.99 per dozen that year. (See References 3) Between March 2006 and March 2011, egg prices in general increased 33 percent, according to Consumer Price Index data (see Resources 2).
Egg-laying hens confined to cages do not have space to move, stretch or engage in natural behaviors, which causes them to engage in repetitive or destructive behaviors, such as feather-pulling or pecking at their neighbors. Caged hens show more fearful behavior and become prone to skeletal problems because of captivity. (See References 4, page 688) Because free-range hens are allowed outdoor access, more space to move around and more opportunities to engage in natural behaviors, free-range eggs are generally regarded as a more humane alternative to conventionally produced eggs. However, regulations on the use of the term "free-range" do not specify the amount of time outdoors or space the hen must have, nor do they indicate that the hen must have access to a pasture diet (see References 1).
Large numbers of animals confined in small spaces, as seen in conventional egg-production facilities, pollute the air, water and soil with the vast amounts of manure they produce. Livestock manure runs off into waterways, causing nutrient pollution and algae blooms; gases from the manure pollute the air; and the medications and pathogens in the animals' waste causes health risks. (See References 5) Animal-based agriculture doesn't have to create a liability for the environment. In his 2006 book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Michael Pollan described poultry farms where rotating pastured poultry among fields provided enough manure to boost the nutrient levels in the soil without becoming toxic. At the same time, the chickens helped to control pests. (See References 6, pages 209-212.)
In addition to being healthier for the planet, free-range eggs are often healthier for you too. In 2007, Mother Earth News collected nutritional data from the eggs produced by 14 flocks of free-range pastured hens and compared that with data provided by the USDA for conventional eggs. The study revealed that the free-range eggs, on average, contained one-third less cholesterol and one-quarter less saturated fat, in addition to higher levels of vitamin A, beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids (See Resources 1). One important distinction is that all hens in the Mother Earth News study were pasture-fed, which is not required by the USDA for free-range eggs (see References 1), so it's possible the improved nutrition was a result of the diet, and not the housing conditions.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture; Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms; April 2011
- Electronic Code of Federal Regulations: National Organic Program --- Livestock Living Conditions
- U.S. Department of Agriculture; Retail Prices, 2004-2006: Eggs; 2006
- "Poultry Science"; Impact of Science and Management on the Welfare of Egg Laying Strains of Hens; P.Y. Hester; May 2005
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Proposal --- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) Pollution Prevention; September 2008
- "The Omnivore's Dilemma"; Michael Pollan; 2006
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.
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