By Mike Jones, Farmer/Owner of Tierra Verde Farms
When you buy eggs and meat, you probably look for terms like cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised. There are critical differences between these terms, and why it matters.
The last time you visited the grocery store, you probably walked out with a skip in your step. After all, you had just purchased organic cage-free eggs for the week, and nothing feels better than supporting farms that raise happy, free, healthy animals. You supported farmers that care for their animals, and you feel confident that you’re eating quality meat and eggs. But, what if you found out that those terms on the brands you purchased might actually mean next to nothing?
When you buy products with labels like “cage-free”, “free-range,” or “pasture-raised,” it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that these terms mean the same thing – that the animal was not in a cage. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. In fact, choosing one popular term over another could mean the animal you’re eating had only a couple of feet of “freedom” its entire life! Let’s discover the important differences between these terms so you can better support brands and farmers offering truly healthy, high-quality animal products.
No Label Claims
If you don’t see any mention of the animal’s lifestyle on the package, you can be pretty certain the animal was caged throughout its life. This goes for eggs as well. Terms like “fresh” and “real,” may be written on the carton, but these terms are not regulated and have no official meaning. “Caged” animals, like chicken, receive only 67 square inches of cage space, which is less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper!
In general, caged animals spend their entire lives with no room to turn around or spread their wings, let alone engage in vital natural behaviors like nesting or dust bathing. To top this off, caged animals are fed diets of the genetically modified or GMO variety of feeds. This leads to unhealthy animals rife with infections and inflammation. In fact, researchers have found that GMO-fed caged pigs have over twice the occurrence of stomach inflammation than pigs fed non-GMO feed. This is because these modified proteins erode the lining of the stomach.
It may seem like “cage-free” products are the answer to these problems, but unfortunately this is a misleading term. While the label sounds synonymous with free-roaming, “cage-free” really means that chickens have only a single square foot of space to move around. The term does not mean they were given access to the outdoors. Certainly not the sunshine and pasture image the term “cage-free” conjures up!
“Free-range” hens don’t fare much better than their “cage-free” cousins. In essence, “free-range” simply means that at some point in the animal’s life, it had some access to the outdoors. However, the term is also not regulated and doesn’t have any requirements regarding the size of the outdoor area, the condition, or even how long or often the animal is outside.
When it comes to beef however, there are slightly more rules involved. If farms want to place the “free-range” label on their packages, it means that the animals are given free access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year. However, this also doesn’t require disclosure of the condition of the outdoor space, or even how big it is. Free-range animals also aren’t exempt from the GMO feed diet – they are simply able to move a couple feet more as they eat it.
“Pasture-raised” is the best term to look for if you want to ensure the meat and/or eggs you’re consuming came from animals with access to the outdoors, as well as some grazing opportunities. Although, this term doesn’t mean they exclusively grazed outdoors – they could still be receiving supplemental feed.
While “pasture-raised” egg-laying hens were not raised entirely indoors, there is no official definition or regulation around the term “pasture,” or a regulation on the amount of time spent in this outdoor space. Poultry and meat labels fare only marginally better, requiring written descriptions of how and where the animals are raised. While “pasture-raised” is the best term to look for, you’ll want to look for additional labels to make sure this is a meaningful claim.
What About Organic?
Organic is great to look for if you want to ensure your animals weren’t fed GMO feed. However, “organic” doesn’t mean that the animal was free-roaming, it simply means they were fed organic feed and not injected with anything artificial.
Two Types of Claims
There are really two types of claims on egg carton labels. The first is a lifestyle claim. Was the hen that laid these eggs raised in a cage (no claim made), or in a crowded barn (cage free), or in a crowded barn with a small porch (free range), or outdoors (pasture raised). These claims can have a significant impact on the nutritional quality and flavor of the eggs.
The second type of claim is to the type of feed the hen eats. Conventional GMO feed (no claim made), Certified Non-GMO feed (exactly what it says it is) and Organic (not only was it a certified Non-GMO feed, it was raised organically).
How to Choose your Eggs
This can be very confusing for the consumer. You can buy organic eggs where the hen that laid them has never seen the sun or grass. You can buy free-range eggs where the hens are fed by-products and GMO feeds. What’s a consumer to do?
The first piece of advice I would give is to know the source of your eggs. The words on the label are only as good as the people making the claim. Know your farmer!! Second piece of advice, I would buy lifestyle first and feed second. I would rather have a pastured hen that had GMO feed than a hen from a large commercial hen house that had organic feed. But if you have the choice, it’s best to buy both pasture raised and non-GMO/Organic feed.
I hope I didn’t make this more confusing. Just remember Lifestyle and food source. If no claim is made it is as bad as you think. Know a farmer you can trust. Here at Tierra Verde Farms we raise pastured hens that are supplemented with a Certified Non-GMO feed. Our hens are outside everyday, They don’t mind the cold and do quite well in it (they hate snow) and they are quite happy. Happy tastes better, we frequently have discussions about how we can reduce and eliminate stress in our hens’ lives. More space, more feeders, more nest boxes, different waterers. We review every aspect of their lives to ensure they are happy hens.
About Mike Jones
Mike Jones and his wife are the owners of Tierra Verde Farms located in Deerfield, Ohio. They have been in operation since 2010. On their farm, they raise grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. They also have honey and maple syrup. Their farm philosophy is simply to farm holistically – marry the priorities of the land, the livestock, the farmers and our nutrition. Mike is a weekly attending vendor at our farmers’ markets and he is also a mentor farm for our New Farmer Academy.