||The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
Free-range eggs are eggs produced from birds that are permitted outdoors for at least part of the day. The term "free-range" may be used differently depending on the country and the relevant laws.
Legal standards defining "free-range" can be different or even non-existent depending on the country. Various watchdog organizations, governmental agencies and industry groups adhere to differing criteria of what constitutes "free-range" and "cage-free" status.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires only that the hen spends part of her time outside, and allows egg producers to freely label these eggs as free-range. Many producers 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 hens which can not range freely, but are confined to a barn instead of a more restrictive cage.
In the EU, cage-free egg production includes barns, free-range, organic (in the UK, systems must be free-range if they are to be labelled as organic) and aviary systems. Non-cage systems may be single or multi-tier (up to four levels), with or without outdoor access. 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. Each hen must have at least 4 m2 of space.
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 hens/m2 of “usable” space (units in production on or before 3 August 1999 may continue with a stocking density up to 12 hens/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 1 m2 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 2,500 hens (equivalent to 4 m2 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 2 m of opening for every 1,000 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 2012, the Australian Egg Corporation Limited, the 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, small producers, animal welfare groups, and consumer rights groups. The trade mark was rejected by the governing body of the ACCC[clarification needed] 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 hens per hectare was increased from 1,500 to 10,000.
Based on data in the European Commission's socio-economic report published in 2004, (prior to battery cages being banned in the EU) it cost €0.66 to produce 12 battery eggs, €0.82 to produce 12 barn eggs and €0.98 to produce 12 free-range eggs. This means that in 2004, one free-range egg cost 2.6 cents more to produce than a battery egg, and a barn egg cost 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 that were available for battery eggs. The Commission’s socio-economic report shows that margins for free-range eggs were around twice as high as those for battery eggs.
Several major retailers have a policy of selling only free-range eggs, or, not selling battery-cage eggs. Some retailers apply this policy not just to eggs in their shells, 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 use 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 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.
In the United States, contrary to popular belief, free-range regulations do not necessarily require that the hen spends substantial time outdoors, only that they have access to the outdoors. Many hens are still kept indoors in high stocking densities and may not go outside.[better source needed]
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.
- 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.
- North, M. and Bell, D. Commercial Chicken Production Manual, page 678. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990
- Jull, Morley A. Successful Poultry Raising. 1943
- Karsten, Heather. "Pasture-ized Poultry." Penn State Online Research," May 2003. http://www.rps.psu.edu/0305/poultry.html
- Long, C. and Newbury, U. "The Good Egg." Mother Earth News, August/September 2005. http://www.motherearthnews.com/DIY/2005-08-01/The-Good-Egg.aspx
- 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