Cage-Free vs. Free-Range vs. Pasture-Raised – Here’s What They Actually Mean
When you buy eggs and meat, you probably look for terms like cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised. Here are the critical differences between these terms, and why it matters.
The last time you visited the grocery store, you probably walked out with a skip in your step. After all, you’d just purchased cage-free eggs and free-range meat for the week, and nothing feels better than supporting farms that raise happy, free, healthy animals. You supported farmers that care for their animals, and you feel confident that you’re eating quality meat.
But, what if you found out that those terms on the brands you purchased might actually mean next to nothing?
Labeling: Diving into the Murky Waters
When you buy products with labels like “cage-free, free-range,” or “pasture-raised,” it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that these terms mean the same thing – that the animal was not in a cage.
Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. In fact, choosing one popular term over another could mean the animal you’re eating had only a couple of feet of “freedom” its entire life!
Read on to discover the important differences between these terms so you can better support brands offering truly healthy, high-quality animal products.
The Difference Between Labels
If you don’t see any mention at all of the animal’s lifestyle on the package, you can be sure the animal was caged throughout its life. This goes for eggs as well: terms like “fresh” and “real,” may be written on the carton, but these terms are not regulated and have no official meaning.
“Caged” animals like chicken receive only 67 square inches of cage space, which is less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper! In general, caged animals spend their entire lives with no room to turn around or spread their wings, let alone engage in vital natural behaviors like nesting or dust bathing.
To top this off, caged animals are fed unnatural diets of corn, soy, and wheat, and most often of the genetically modified or GMO variety. This leads to unhealthy animals rife with infections and inflammation.
In fact, researchers have found that GMO-fed caged pigs have over twice the occurrence of stomach inflammation than pigs fed non-GMO feed because these modified proteins erode the lining of the stomach.
It may seem like “cage-free” products are the answer to these problems but, unfortunately, this is a misleading term. While the label sounds synonymous with free-roaming, “cage-free” really means that chickens have only a single square foot of space to move around.
The term does not mean they were given access to the outdoors. Not entirely the sunshine and pasture image the term “cage-free” conjures up!
“Free-range” hens don’t fare much better than their “cage-free” cousins. In essence, “free-range” simply means that at some point in the animal’s life, it had some access to the outdoors.
However, the term is also not regulated, and doesn’t have any requirements regarding the size of the outdoor area, the condition, or even how long or often the animal is outside.
When it comes to beef, however, there are slightly more rules involved if farms want to place the “free-range” label on their packages: that the animals are given free access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year.
However, this also doesn’t require disclosure of the condition of the outdoor space, or even how big it is.
Free-range animals also aren’t exempt from the corn, soy, and wheat diet – they are simply able to move a couple feet more as they eat it.
“Pasture-raised” is the best term to look for if you want to ensure the meat and/or eggs you’re consuming came from animals with access to the outdoors, as well as some grazing opportunities (although this term doesn’t mean they exclusively grazed outdoors – they could still be receiving supplemental feed).
While “pasture-raised” dairy and egg-laying hens were not raised entirely indoors, there is no official definition or regulation around the term “pasture,” or a regulation on the amount of time spent in this outdoor space.
Poultry and meat labels fare only marginally better, requiring written descriptions of how and where the animals are raised. While “pasture-raised” is the best term to look for, you’ll want to look for additional labels to make sure this is a meaningful claim.
What About Organic Products?
Organic is great to look for if you want to ensure your animals weren’t fed GMO corn and soy. However, “organic” doesn’t mean that the animal was free-roaming, it simply means they were fed organic feed and not injected with anything artificial.
Pasture-Raised, Grass-fed, Certified Humane, Organic Meats Are Best
If you want to ensure the dairy or beef you’re consuming was from a cow that roamed on a pasture and ate a natural diet, look for the term “grass-fed” on the label.
When buying eggs, look for the Certified Humane seal or Animal Welfare Approved label as they indicate the chickens live in decent conditions with monitoring for factors such as ventilation, air quality, and environment.
To add another layer of protection, it would help to buy organic as well, as this means the animal was not administered antibiotics or hormones. Not only are pasture-raised and grass-fed animals happier with more space to roam, but they are also healthier, which translates into important health benefits for us.
More Anti-Inflammatory Benefits
Studies have found that pasture-raised eggs contain twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids than regular eggs. As for meat, research has shown pastured chickens have greater nutritional quality.
This is important because non-pastured animals fed a diet of corn and soy have a high omega-6 fatty acid ratio which is pro-inflammatory for them (and for us when consumed). Omega-3, on the other hand, is anti-inflammatory and reduces the risk of heart attacks.
More Essential Vitamins
Specifically, pasture-raised eggs contain twice as much vitamin E and 38 percent more vitamin A than their caged counterparts.
In addition, pasture-raised pork has been found to contain up to 200 percent more vitamin E, while pasture-raised beef contains up to 700 percent more beta-carotene.
Here’s a scary fact: Nearly half of all feedlot, caged animal meat in the U.S. have tested positive for the antibiotic-resistant Staph bacteria. If you don’t want to consume Staph, buy pasture-raised.
Where to Find Pasture-Raised, Grass-fed Eggs and Meat
Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods all carry pasture-raised, grass-fed products. If you don’t live near any stores with organic products, your best bet is to search online for local farms that fully disclose their animal welfare practices. Some may even let you visit their farms to see their free animals up close.
Being informed on what label terms actually mean, is crucial to supporting your health and humane farming practices. Don’t be fooled by meaningless marketing terms!
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Written by Megan Patiry
Megan is an inquisitive nutrition and wellness writer harboring an editorial love affair with the decadent and the nutritious. She is a dedicated researcher in all areas of ancestral health, a certified specialist in fitness nutrition, personal trainer, and professional almond milk latte addict.
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