Eggs: The System Is Cracked

An Easter conundrum: ‘Cage-free’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘cruelty-free.’

Chickens in a henhouse with eggs.
Want to give chickens a better life? Get your eggs from the farmer's market. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

It's time for that annual Easter ritual: egg dyeing. But while a basket full of colorful eggs may be a cheery symbol of the holiday, there's a grim reality behind those innocuous eggs.

Truth is, factory farming operations are not happy places if you're a hen. The facilities prize efficiency over comfort and well-being, cramming thousands of birds into rows of tiny wire cages. The birds are deprived of natural behaviors like foraging and roosting, and they can't peck because their beaks are clipped with a heated blade. It's no wonder that conscientious consumers reach for the "cage-free" carton when picking up eggs at the grocery store.

But is life really different for a cage-free hen?

Not always.

Male chicks still get tossed out.

When mass-producing eggs, the only valuable birds are those that can squeeze out eggs. For males, that equates to an almost instant death. On factory farms, male chicks are euthanized in a range of pretty gruesome methods: high-speed grinders, gasing, suffocation, and electrocution are all common. For birds on commericial cage-free farms, the fate is the same. Simply put, male chicks aren't useful when you're in the business of selling eggs.

"Cage-free" doesn't mean bucolic pastures. 

The term "cage-free" conjures up a vision of the farms of yesteryear, when farms were smaller and animals really did roam the grounds. But nowadays a "cage-free" label only requires the absence of a cage. Birds can still be kept in dark hen houses in cramped conditions. "Cage-free" also doesn't mean that birds have access to grass or the outdoors.

Cage-free birds are still sent to slaughter.

When birds are "spent," meaning they're no longer useful in laying facilities, they're sent to processing facilities. Along the way, the trip is the same, whether a bird has been dubbed "cage-free" or not. Birds are packed into small crates, then loaded onto trucks, regardless of whether the temp is 90 degrees or 20 below. Hundreds of millions of birds' wings and legs are broken along the way, and millions of animals never make it to slaughter because they die of stress en route.

The picture is bleak. But there is something you can do.

Want to change things? Buy eggs at your local farmer's market.

The best action to help reduce animal cruelty--aside from giving up eggs altogether--is to buy from your local farmer's market. Local egg farms do not produce eggs on the same massive scale that breeds miserable conditions for birds. You should still ask questions about the birds, however, like how many hens live on the farm, what they eat, and whether they are able to roost and walk around. "Local" doesn't guarantee ethical practices.

Eggs sold at farmer's markets are likely to be more nutritious, too. A 2009 article on Mother Earth News (MEN) compares eggs from hens raised on pastures to those in factory farms, finding that pastured eggs have: 

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • two times more vitamin E
  • seven times more beta carotene

Factory farms, you got nothing on pastures.

If your local farmer's market doesn't sell eggs, fear not: There are humane options in grocery stores. Look for cartons labeled "Certified Humane," "American Humane Certified," or "Animal Welfare Approved," which means your eggs came from hens who were treated humanely and didn't come from a factory farm. Or, buy one of these dozen brands recommended by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA):

  • Born Free (Certified Humane and Cage Free and USDA Organic)
  • Cyd's Nest Fresh (Certified Humane)
  • Egg Innovations (Certified Humane and Cage Free)
  • Eggland's Best (American Humane Certified)
  • Eggology (Certified Humane and Cage Free and USDA Organic)
  • Giving Nature (Certified Humane)
  • Go-Organic Omega 3 (Certified Humane and Cage Free and USDA Organic)
  • Land O' Lakes (Cage Free and USDA Organic)
  • Nellie's Nest (Certified Humane and Cage Free)
  • Pete & Gerry's (Certified Humane and Cage Free and USDA Organic)
  • Phil's Fresh Eggs (American Humane Certified)
  • Sunrise Fresh (Certified Humane and Cage Free)

Easy, right? Eggs-actly.

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