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Smart Shopping: Free Range vs. Pasture Raised Eggs

February 29, 2024

As with many products, shopping for eggs can be so confusing. Free range vs. pasture raised, or cage free – to a city dweller, or anyone not super tuned into farming processes, these terms sound pretty similar. But in practice, they’re actually quite different. Knowing what these terms mean, and why the prices vary so much, can help you make the best decision when shopping for eggs.

“We want consumers to know that there are options that align with their values,” says Phyllis Rothschild, chief marketing officer for Pete & Gerry’s. “With the proliferation of different designations – cage free, free range, pasture raised, etc. – it’s just causing more confusion. And with that confusion, consumers just want to understand, what is it I’m paying for?”

Here’s a breakdown of what these terms mean, so you can decide what makes the most sense for you when shopping for eggs.

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What is “cage free”?

The USDA regulates the term “cage free,” which means the chickens were raised under certain specific conditions. Producers have to house the chickens in a way that allows for them to have unlimited access to food and water. They also must be free to roam indoors, and engage in natural behaviors with access to perches, nests, and scratch areas. More and more eggs are being raised this way, as states continue to pass laws against confining hens. Plus, more food companies and retailers are specifically sourcing cage-free eggs.

Cage free eggs are less expensive than free range or pastured. In terms of conditions for the hens, it’s better than conventionally raised (i.e., in cages), though marginally so.

What is “free range”?

“Free range” is also regulated by the USDA, and allows for more consideration for the birds’ welfare. Along with unlimited access to food and water, they must have continuous access to the outdoors. The outdoor area can be fenced in or have netting material over it, and it must offer protection for the chickens from predators. As with cage-free eggs, the birds must be able to engage in natural behaviors, and have access to perches, nests, and scratch areas.

“With free range and above – so free range and pasture raised – the hens have the opportunity to live outside, enjoying pastures, enjoying treats in the fields, bugs and worms and things like that,” Rothschild says. “They get exposure to sunlight, get exposure to exercise and movement freely in the outdoor space. This is a stark difference from what they experience at the cage-free level, where they don’t get to go outside, and they don’t get to eat those things, and they don’t get access to sun and exercise in the same way.”

It’s worth noting that just because free range hens have access to the outdoors doesn’t mean they get a lot of space outside. If there’s a door to the outside that’s sometimes open and leads to a small patch of ground, that’s considered “free range.” Look for brands that offer specific information about how their free range hens are raised.

What is “pasture raised”?

Unlike cage free and free range, the term “pasture raised” is not regulated by the USDA. Your best bet is to check the label on egg cartons marked “pasture raised” for third-party stamps, such as “Certified Humane” or “Certified Animal Welfare Approved.” These third parties have their own sets of standards for animal treatment.

For example, to get a Certified Humane stamp, producers have to meet rigorous standards for everything from the amount and type of light the hens are exposed to, to air quality, temperature, the design of nests and perches, and more. Producers have to allow the birds to stay outdoors for a minimum of 6 hours per day, barring emergency conditions. There’s a minimum of 2.5 acres of outdoor space per 1,000 birds, and the pasture must have living vegetation.

Free range vs. pasture raised: What should I buy?

What types of eggs are best for you depends on your budget. It’s worth keeping in mind that eggs are generally an inexpensive form of animal protein. One large egg has 6 grams of protein. Searching on Amazon for large pasture-raised eggs, we found prices ranging from $5 to $10 per dozen. Cage free eggs ranged from $3 to $4.50 per dozen, and free range fell mostly in between. Even at the highest price point, three eggs would cost about $2.50, for 18 grams of protein. Prices at your local stores may vary, and you can look for deals at stores like Aldi or Trader Joe’s, as well as farmer’s markets.

Read next: Here’s Why You Should Be Eating More Eggs

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