The other day I was grabbing pastured eggs from my neighborhood grocery store when I noticed some other eggs labeled as “free-range.” I wasn’t sure what the difference was, so I did some research and here’s what I found.
Though lacking an agreed-upon official definition, pastured generally implies that hens lay the eggs with substantial access to the outdoors. Free-range eggs come from hens that live in barns but are permitted access to the outdoors. The US government does not regulate the duration of outdoor access nor the quality of that access. While the concepts tend to invoke similar feelings from shoppers, these terms indicate wildly different approaches in agriculture, and it’s important to understand what those differences mean.
As I mentioned above, the term pastured doesn’t have an official definition, and therefore it’s possible to use misleadingly. However, the reality is that pasture-based agriculture is so different than conventional agriculture that I believe that it is much less likely is that a term like pastured eggs is misused when compared to something like free range eggs.
What Does Free-Range Eggs Mean?
In other words, eggs coming from free-range laying hens on a farm that employs conventional agricultural techniques would almost always be an upgrade to the status quo. Free-range laying hens have an improved life when compared to hens confined to battery cages, but much of that life is based around very similar ideas. These laying hens will live the vast majority of their lives in a building that is in a fixed location.
While there are indeed benefits to this approach (mostly for the farmer), it creates a whole host of problems such as concentrated waste distribution and a general lack of space.
What Does it Mean if an Egg is Pastured?
On the other hand, pastured eggs are most likely coming from laying hens that are living wildly different lives. Similar to their free-range sisters, these hens have a coop that they call home, but the big difference is that they are moved across the land frequently in search of fresh pasture.
This frequent movement lessens their impact on the land and can be extremely beneficial for the land when executed by an experienced farmer. Often these movements are done in harmony with the movements of grazing animals, such as sheep and cattle. Usually what this means is that laying hens in a pasture-based farm will follow the same path as the grazers, just several days behind.
This coordinated approach has one big, juicy perk for those hens: cow patties that are several days old are ripe with fly larvae that chickens love to eat. Therefore, when reaching a new spot, these laying hens will fan out and scratch through all the cow pies they can find to gobble up the juicy larvae. This helps significantly reduce the impending fly problem and also helps distribute the manure as boy oh boy do chickens love to scratch around in cow pies.
Why Do the Differences Matter?
Hopefully, you can understand how the difference between these two terms is less about definitions and more about the implications of the farming methods that they represent. Don’t get me wrong, I can more than appreciate the positive direction of a well-implemented free-range farm, but my take is that the big picture benefits of a pasture-based agricultural system make it the ideal we should strive for, even if it is a more labor-intensive approach.
Unlike pastured eggs, there is a specific definition for free-range eggs that is defined and enforced by the USDA. While there is an actual definition and it’s very reasonable to want terms like these to have official definitions, there is a bit of a problem here.
The reality is that the definition for free-range eggs is loose enough that it’s not guaranteed that a free-range farm is that much of an upgrade when compared to a conventional farm. I would undoubtedly say that free-range eggs will always be some improvement, as laying hens having access to the outdoors would never be negative. The problem is that it’s tough to know how beneficial the free-range setup is without knowing particulars about the farm in question.
For that reason alone, I don’t place a ton of value on the words “free-range” on an egg carton, as the implications are so hard to gauge correctly.
What About Certified Humane Eggs?
While the truth is that is difficult to compare terms when one has a government definition, and the other is left undefined, we, fortunately, have many non-profit organizations that are focused on filling this gap. One great example is Humane Farm Animal Care (HAFC), which is a nonprofit organization focused on improving the living conditions of the animals that make up our food system.
They have implemented definitions for both pasture-raised and free range eggs, and these definitions provide requirements for the living conditions of the laying hens. The definitions provided by HFAC not only highlight the significant difference between pasture systems and free-range farms, but they also define free-range that dramatically raises the bar in comparison to the government definition. Notable differences include that the HFAC definition of free-range requires that hens must be outdoors for a minimum of 6 hours a day when it is weather permitting.
In comparison, the HFAC definition for pasture-raised eggs highlights many of the unique features of a pasture-based farm that I mentioned earlier. The definition from the HFAC requires that the laying hens have access to significant space (108 square feet per bird) and that the fields the hens are on must be rotated. This is an important distinction as a farm with these characteristics is remaining true to the principles established by the booming pasture-based agricultural world.
As such, I’m a big fan of leveraging the great work of organizations like the HFAC. If you’re out shopping and you see their label being used on an egg carton that is making claims about being “pasture-raised” or “free-range,” you can rest assured knowing that these terms are used in good faith.