Today when we enter a grocery store, we are presented with an array of labels on products that may be helpful in our decision making. Labels that signal that the product is cruelty-free, fair trade, or organic may influence our decision on whether or not we purchase it. With an increasing number of consumers willing to pay more for animal products in which the animals suffered less, eggs that have free-range or cage-free claims have been a way for the consumer to feel as though they are making a more ethical decision. However, these claims may be deceptive.
When hearing the term “free-range,” we may envision a scene of chickens happily living on a farm, with the ability to roam freely about, taking in the fresh air, soaking up the sun, and having plenty of space to themselves. However, egg companies only need to supply their chickens with food and water, and “access to the outdoors during their laying cycle” to have their eggs labeled as free-range by the USDA. By only requiring that their hens be “allowed access to the outdoors during their laying cycle,” many hens will never leave the building during their abbreviated lives, and, by definition, the outdoor area may “be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material,” providing a loophole that prohibits any meaningful outdoor experience. If an egg producer wants to have a cage-free label on their packaging from the USDA, the only requirements are to supply the hens with food, water, and ability to roam within the building. With these loose guidelines for free-range and cage-free eggs, companies are left with a lot of room to not just humane wash their eggs, meaning they market their product as humane while actually engaging in cruel practices, but these companies may also be greenwashing.
Greenwashing is the word used to describe when companies appear to use environmentally friendly practices but in reality do not. In the case of free-range or cage-free eggs, we may assume that the hens are given more space, which may lead us to think that there are fewer hens in that facility than would be in a cage system. If there are fewer chickens, then we may believe that fewer resources are used and less of a strain is put on the environment. Unfortunately, even though these hens have a little more room than a cage system, there is still no USDA regulation on hen density. This allows for problems related to cage systems to still be relevant in cage-free and free-range systems. Eggs from caged systems are correlated with more efficiency, since the hens are not able to spend their energy on much else other than laying eggs. In addition, it was found that egg producing facilities that don’t use cages tend to have poorer air quality, are associated with more food and energy use during cold weather, and are less resource efficient, creating a larger impact on the environment than caged hens. A UK study found that to produce 1,000 kilograms of eggs required 51.2 hens in a cage system and 53.8 in a free-range system. The free-range eggs also tended to consume more food and water than the caged hens.
In addition to the increased environmental impact cage-free and free-range eggs may have, egg companies may also be deceptive when marketing their products as more humane than they actually are. Although the vision of happy chickens living a wonderful life on a farm is pleasant and ideal, it tends to not work when it comes to large scale production. Many cage-free and free-range hens live in a large warehouse, often without windows. Also, California’s Proposition 12, aiming to end animal confinement in the animal agriculture industry, only requires that each chicken be given 1 to 1.5 square feet of floor space to live their entire life. Along with these hens still living in a cramped facility with no windows, cage-free warehouses also tend to build up manure, which is more difficult to remove than in a caged system. This makes it easier for the chickens to get sick and builds up dust-containing toxins and pathogens that the chickens and workers can inhale. Finally, since these chickens are also able to somewhat roam, they attempt to establish a pecking order, which leads to more bone breakage and cannibalism.
As we desire to make better choices for the environment and animals, supporting companies that claim to be more ethical or environmentally friendly appears to be a great way to achieve that. However, companies rarely, if ever, offer accurate representations of what those chickens’ lives are truly like.
Katie Crumpley is an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz and FFAC intern.