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As the government oversees a recall of over 500 million eggs due to a salmonella scare, consumers are wondering which eggs are safe and which are best to avoid. Eggs marketed as “free range,” “cage free,” and “organic” may provide a safer alternative, but understanding these terms will help the consumer make a more informed choice.

Free range eggs

Loosely defined, “free range” chickens are from flocks which have access to the outdoors. Chickens which can exercise in open spaces, and forage for insects and available wild foods, are likely to be healthier birds. Following this logic, eggs from free range chickens should be healthier for the consumer. However, US egg producers may claim that their eggs are “free range” if they can demonstrate to the USDA that the poultry has been allowed “access to the outside.” This does not assure that the chickens actually go outside, only that they have access. Unfortunately, this significant loophole makes it difficult to know if you’re truly getting pastured eggs.

According to Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, a Maryland-based animal advocacy organization, there is no commercial or legal definition for free-range eggs in the United States. Neither is there an association of free-range egg producers to set and maintain standards.
Outside the United States, according to the Egg Safety Board, free-range “denotes a method of farming husbandry where the animals are allowed to roam freely instead of being contained in any manner.” This definition closes the loopholes which favor egg producers.

The best way to determine if your eggs came from chickens raised in actual free range conditions is to find a local egg producer, and visit their operation. This can be an interesting outing for the family which may lead to a local source for other farm products such as produce and dairy items. To find an egg producer near you, check

Cage free

Battery cages are wire cages for egg-laying hens, usually about 18 by 20 inches, each with up to 11 birds inside. Large commercial egg producers raise chickens in these cages, where the hens live their entire lives never being able to spread their wings. “Cage free” eggs come from chickens raised outside of cages.

Advocates contend that cage-free eggs taste better and are healthier. However, critics say that cage-free doesn’t mean comfortable: In some operations, many thousands of hens can be packed together in a crowded indoor space, flapping their clipped wings, fluttering on top of one another—not really an improvement over being constrained in a cage. They may still be pumped with antibiotics and hormones. Currently, the term “cage-free” appears to have no legal definition. And cage-free operations are not well regulated.

European egg producers are currently phasing cages out of egg production.


Hens must be fed a 100 percent organic diet containing no hormones or animal by-products to be certified USDA “organic” eggs. The feed must be free of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).

In organic egg production, the flock must live cage-free with access to the outdoors. Organic egg layers are still raised in confinement like industrial egg layers are. The birds are raised to live free-roaming throughout the barn. The number of birds that live in a barn is calculated using the amount of square footage in the barn and the square footage birds need. In an organic operation, nesting boxes are placed above a belted system. This allows for the free roaming birds to lay their eggs on the belts instead of on the ground. Eggs laid on the ground are not allowed to be sold for human consumption. The belted system then collects the eggs so that farmers don’t have to on a regular basis, which could upset the birds and affect egg production levels. The birds must also be allowed to have access to the outdoors “if they so choose”.

Many consumers believe that certified organic eggs are tastier and more healthful than non-organic eggs. The price for USDA Certified Organic eggs, however, can be 20 – 50% higher.

When humane methods are used in raising poultry, the risk of salmonella outbreak is much lower. A recent British survey found that about a quarter of caged hen populations tested positive for salmonella, versus less than 5% of organic flocks and 6.5% of free-range flocks. In fact, the amount of salmonella contamination was directly parallel to the size of the flocks.

It is important to note that while free-range, cage-free and organic eggs may be healthier and better tasting, these labels are no guarantee that the eggs are not tainted with salmonella. While organic or free-range eggs and poultry may have reduced risk of salmonella contamination, a consumer’s best defense is to wash all egg shells, store eggs at 40F or below, in the interior of the refrigerator, rather than the door, which is subject to variable temperatures, and cook eggs – yolks and all – to a temperature of 160F.

The source of the current salmonella outbreak has been traced to two producers in Galt, Iowa, and sold in retail stores as a variety of different brand names. The Egg Safety Center has a complete list of recalled eggs, their expiration dates, and brands.