Q: What does the term "cage free" mean on egg cartons?
A: There are no national standards for cage-free egg production in the U.S., but the term generally means that the hens are not in cages and have more room to walk, spread their wings, and engage in other natural behaviors including nesting, perching, and dust-bathing. Thus, cage-free is considered more humane than the crowded wire “battery cages” that house the majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S., which give the birds 67 square inches of room (that’s smaller than an 8x10 piece of paper).
A free-the-birds movement has been accelerating in recent years, with more than 100 leading food companies, supermarkets, and restaurant and hotel chains pledging to use 100-percent cage-free eggs within a decade. Among the cage-free committers are PepsiCo, General Mills, ConAgra, Campbell Soup, Burger King, Starbucks, Target, Dunkin’ Donuts, Costco, CVS, Trader Joe’s, Marriott, and Hyatt.
But it's important to note that cage-free birds are still typically raised indoors and are still often subjected to crowded factory conditions and other dismal practices, such as painful beak cutting (done to prevent birds from pecking each other and pecking their own feathers, behaviors seen under stressful conditions).
Bottom line: Cage-free is more humane than caged, but the label doesn’t mean “cruelty-free,” the Humane Society emphasizes. Best is the Animal Welfare Approved label, which ensures the highest level of humane conditions. For instance, it mandates 259 square inches of indoor space and 576 square inches of outdoor space per bird, and it prohibits beak cutting and forced molting through starvation. Other trustworthy (though less stringent) labels include Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, and Food Alliance Certified. The Humane Society provides a comparison of egg carton labels.
Also see Egg Cartons: What's Best?