Cage-Free vs. Free-Range Eggs – How to Read Egg Labels

published Mar 20, 2024
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Eggs in egg box
Credit: Getty Images | La Bicicleta Vermella

The egg aisle can be a confusing place. Once upon a time, egg choice was limited to size and whether you preferred white or brown. These days, there’s actually quite a bit to know about your eggs and where they come from. If you’re on a quest for supplies for your next eggy recipe, there are a plethora of labels and terms for different kinds of eggs. 

Some of the labels you see on a carton of eggs may refer to similar-sounding, or even the same, things (if a chicken is “pasture-raised” isn’t it also “free-range”?), but there are big differences in how the hens laying your eggs are treated. Here, we break down the difference between the three most common labels for eggs in the grocery store.

Quick Overview

What’s the Difference Between Cage-Free, Free-Range, and Pasture-Raised?

These terms refer to the living conditions of the hens that laid the eggs. 

  • “Cage-Free” means hens lived in a space where they could move around and were not confined to a cage.
  • “Free-Range” means hens had access to the outdoors. 
  • Pasture-Raised” refers to when the hens are given at least 108 square feet of outdoor space to roam in addition to indoor housing.

Cage-Free Eggs

When eggs are labeled “cage-free,” it means that the chickens who laid those eggs (“layer hens”) live in an open indoor space. Per the USDA, “Eggs labeled ‘cage-free’… are laid by hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house.” This is a big departure from decades past when hens raised in cages was a more prevalent practice. While there is no federal legislation banning the use of cages, many states have either banned their use entirely or required that farms phase them out. 

Cage-free hens are required to be able to move both vertically and horizontally and have unlimited access to food and water. It’s important to know, however, that conditions can vary widely from farm to farm and while some do offer enriched environments with access to areas to scratch, perch, and nest, there is no requirement for hens to have outdoor access or for their housing to even have a window. Housing for hens on some farms producing eggs labeled “cage-free” can still be extremely crowded with little room for hens to move freely.

Free-Range Eggs

‘Free-range’ eggs were laid by hens with access to the outdoors. While this label is regulated by the USDA, there are very few guidelines in place governing what “access to the outdoors” means in practice. Look for labels from third-party regulators like Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). They work to ensure the quality of life of farm animals, including ensuring eggs labeled ‘free-range’ come from hens who have meaningful access to the outdoors (i.e., the hens actually go outdoors, as opposed to there simply being an opening in their housing that hens may or may not be able to access due to overcrowding) and that farms follow their standards for humane care. 

Pasture-Raised Eggs

Pasture-raised eggs offer the best quality of life for layer hens that we’ve covered here. Although this term is not regulated by the USDA, you can rely on labels from the HFAC or American Humane Farm Program to indicate that hens are given a minimum of 108 square feet of outdoor space to roam in addition to indoor housing. Hens have room to move, engage in natural behaviors, and have access to fresh air and sunshine.

More Egg Labels

There are quite a few additional labels you might see on a package of eggs. Here’s a quick breakdown of some common ones.

  • USDA Certified Organic: Hens must be fed an organic diet. This designation doesn’t refer to living conditions of hens or access to the outdoors.
  • Vegetarian-Fed: Chickens are omnivores who eat insects and worms, so this label is not typically applied to free-range or pasture-raised eggs who have outdoor access.
  • Hormone-Free: Hens raised in the U.S. are required by federal law to be raised without receiving additional hormones, so any egg you choose is hormone-free whether or not it’s labeled as such.
  • Antibiotic-Free: Hens in the U.S. are very rarely treated with antibiotics. In the case of illness it may happen, but their use is regulated by the FDA and farmers must follow guidelines to ensure no residues from antibiotics make their way into any eggs.