||The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
Free-range eggs are eggs produced using birds that are permitted to roam freely within a farmyard, a shed or a chicken coop. (Eggs from indoor-only chickens might also be labelled cage-free or bard-roaming.) This is different from factory-farmed birds that are typically enclosed in battery cages. The term "free-range" may be used differently depending on the country and its law.
Legal standards defining "free range" can be different or even non-existent depending on the country. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires only that the bird spends part of its time outside, and allows egg producers to freely label these eggs as free-range. Many producers will label their eggs as cage-free in addition to or instead of free-range. Recently, US egg labels have expanded to include the term "barn-roaming," to more accurately describe the source of those eggs that are laid by chickens who do not range freely but are confined to a barn instead of a more restrictive cage.
Cage-free egg production includes barns, free-range and organic systems. In the UK, free-range systems are the most popular of the non-cage alternatives, accounting for around 44% of all eggs in 2013, whereas barns and organic eggs together accounted for 5%.  In free-range systems, hens are housed to a similar standard as the barn or aviary. In addition, they have constant daytime access to an outside range with vegetation. In the EU each hen must have at least 4 square metres of space.
Non-cage systems may be single or multi-tier (up to four levels), with or without outdoor access. Indoor non-cage systems are also referred to as aviaries (for systems with multiple tiers) or barn systems. The European Union Council Directive 1999/74/EC stipulates that from 1 January 2007 (1 January 2012 for newly built or rebuilt systems), non-cage systems must provide the following:
- A maximum stocking density of 9 birds/m2 of “usable” space (units in production on or before 3 August 1999 may continue with a stocking density up to 12 birds/m2 until 31 December 2011)
- If more than one level is used, a height of at least 45 cm between the levels
- One nest for every seven hens (or 1m2 of nest space for every 120 hens if group nests are used)
- Litter (e.g., wood shavings) covering at least one-third of the floor surface, providing at least 250 cm2 of littered area per hen
- 15-cm of perching space per hen.
In addition to these requirements, free-range systems must also provide the following:
- One hectare of outdoor range for every 2500 hens (equivalent to 4m2 per hen; at least 2.5 m2 per hen must be available at any one time if rotation of the outdoor range is practiced)
- Continuous access during the day to this open-air range, which must be “mainly covered with vegetation”
- Several popholes extending along the entire length of the building, providing at least 2m of opening for every 1000 hens.
Case studies of free-range systems for laying hens across the EU, carried out by Compassion in World Farming, demonstrate how breed choice and preventive management practices can enable farmers to successfully use non beak-trimmed birds.
In Australia, in 2012, the Australian Egg Corporation Limited, body for the industry, tried to register a free range trademark allowing 20,000 hens per hectare on the range. This sparked a major discussion between large producers, welfare groups, and small producers. The trade mark was rejected by the governing body of the ACCC on the grounds of deceptive conduct and the industry is set to be strictly regulated to stamp out widespread cheating.
There is a voluntary code allowing for 1,500 hens per hectare which is widely ignored by the major egg producers.
The Queensland government approved an increase in free range layer hen stocking densities in July. The maximum number of chickens per hectare has increased from 1500 to 10,000.
Based on data in the European Commission's socio-economic report, it costs €0.66 to produce 12 battery eggs, €0.82 to produce 12 barn eggs and €0.98 to produce 12 free-range eggs. So 12 free-range eggs cost €0.32 more to produce than 12 battery eggs, and 12 barn eggs cost €0.16 more to produce than 12 battery eggs. This means that one free-range egg costs 2.6 cents more to produce than a battery egg, and a barn egg costs 1.3 cents more to produce than a battery egg. The Commission’s report concludes that, if costs were to increase by 20%, which it says is the type of percentage increase in terms of variable costs that producers are likely to face as a result of switching to free-range, the industry will potentially suffer a loss of producer surplus of €354 million (EU-25).
The margins achieved by producers for barn and free-range eggs are appreciably higher than those available for battery eggs. The Commission’s socio-economic report shows that margins for free-range eggs are around twice as high as those for battery eggs.
A number of major retailers already have an express policy of only selling free-range eggs or of not selling battery eggs. Some retailers apply this policy not just to shell eggs but also to eggs used in baked goods and processed products such as ready-made meals, quiches, and ice cream. In the UK, The Co-Operative and Marks & Spencer sell only free-range shell eggs and uses only free-range eggs in their entire range of baked goods, processed products, and ready-made meals. Waitrose sells only non-cage shell eggs, and uses only free-range eggs in their processed products and ready-made meals.
As of 1 January 2007 (with one minor exception), all Austrian supermarkets no longer sell battery eggs. Many retailers in the Netherlands, including Albert Heijn and Schuitema (subsidiaries of Ahold), Laurus (including Edah, Konmar and Super de Boer), Dirk van den Broek (including Bas van der Heijden and Digros), Aldi and Lidl sell only free-range shell eggs. Three Belgian supermarkets: Makro, Colruyt and Lidl, no longer sell battery eggs. The Commission’s report states that Sweden's move away from conventional battery cages has been aided by the decision by the four largest retailers (who between them account for 98-99% of the Swedish retail market) to stop stocking conventional battery eggs. U.S. food suppliers Aramark and Unilever have announced they intend to buy only cage-free eggs, but as of 2013 there are not enough available to supply them.
Free range does not imply in any way that the hens were fed any differently than on normal commercial farms. The label "free roaming" does not describe feed supplies, which means that free-range hens can be fed the same animal-derived byproducts or GMO crops as in other non-organic farms. This is also the main reason why free-range eggs are cheaper than organic eggs.
Consumers of free-range eggs want eggs from hens that are kept under traditional low-density, free-range conditions. Critics of EU-style free-range regulations point out that commercial free-range egg farming, in general, does not live up to these consumer requirements, since the regulations allow the use of yarding rather than free range. Yarding combines a high-density poultry house with an attached fenced yard, and both its methods and results are closer to high-density confinement than true free range.
Free-range eggs may be broader, and have more of an orange colour to their yolks due to the abundance of greens and insects in the diet of the birds. An orange yolk is, however, no guarantee that an egg was produced by a free-range hen. Feed additives such as marigold petal meal, dried algae, or alfalfa meal can be used to color the yolks.
Studies suggest the nutritional content of eggs from hens that forage daily on a grass range is superior to that of eggs produced by conventional means. These studies report higher levels of omega 3 and Vitamins A and E, and lower levels of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and omega 6.
A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 using industry standard measures of shell strength, the height of egg whites (Haugh unit) and their protein and crude fat content determined that there were no nutritional benefits to free-range eggs when compared to factory eggs. However the study did not measure the types of fat in the eggs nor did it measure differences in vitamin and essential fatty acid content.
- UK egg production and price statistics
- Compassion in World Farming - Egg laying hens - Higher welfare alternatives
- Compassion in World Farming report - Alternatives to the barren battery cage
- European Commission, 2004. Study on the socio-economic implications of the various systems to keep laying hens. Final Report for The European Commission, submitted by Agra CEAS Consulting Ltd., 2120/CC/December 2004. in Compassion in World Farming report - Alternatives to the barren battery cage
- Dan Charles (2013-06-27). "What The Rise of Cage-Free Means For Chickens". NPR.
- Free Range, Yarding, and Confinement
- Van Den Brand H, Parmentier HK, Kemp B (2004). "Effects of housing system (outdoor vs cages) and age of laying hens on egg characteristics". Br. Poult. Sci. 45 (6): 745–52. doi:10.1080/00071660400014283. PMID 15697013.
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- Long, C. and Alterman, T. "Meet Real Free-Range Eggs" Mother Earth News, October/November 2007. http://www.motherearthnews.com/Whole-Foods-and-Cooking/2007-10-01/Tests-Reveal-Healthier-Eggs.aspx
- Jones, Deana; Musgrove, Michael (2010). "Physical quality and composition of retail shell eggs". Poultry Science: 582–587
- Kluger, Jeffrey "Organic Eggs: Expensive, but No Healthier" Time, 2010-07-08. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2002334,00.html