Cage-free does not mean hens get to roam open-air pastures; in fact, their lives are still quite miserable.
American grocer Trader Joe's is being sued for deceptively labelling cartons of eggs. The lawsuit, launched in March by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), argues that having the words "cage-free" printed boldly on an egg carton, accompanied by an idyllic background of green open-air pastures, leads shoppers to think they're buying a product that's more natural than it really is.
Cage-free simply means that the hens are not kept in battery cages, which allot a pitiful 67 square inches of space, little more than a sheet of paper, per bird. Cage-free birds are allowed to practice natural behaviors, such as spreading their wings, walking, and laying their eggs in a nest, but they are still confined to over-crowded industrial barns and do not have access to the outdoors.
As Kate Braskeir writes for MIC,
"In a sense, all eggs labeled 'cage-free' are misleading. The terminology doesn't ensure that birds are treated as compassionately as conscious consumers would like, nor does it have set requirements by the government, meaning a cage-free raised hen on one farm could live very differently than a hen raised elsewhere. Cage-free doesn't mean the animals even have to see the light of day."
Tyler Lobdell, a lawyer with the ALDF, explains that egg labels are extremely confusing because there is little regulation or enforcement behind them. This allows producers to get away with 'humane-washing' their products, i.e. portraying them as greener and more ethical than they really are. He describes the concept of the outdoors as "murky."
A number of major food retailers, including McDonald's, Sysco, Burger King, Subway, and Starbucks, have promised to switch to cage-free eggs in coming years, but for those people who understand more about what cage-free really means, it's not good enough. Says Lobdell,
"Consumers are more and more concerned about animal welfare every year, and they're willing to vote with their dollar. When the reality of cage-free is [better understood], it’s going to lose its luster and people are going to demand more."
Trader Joe's has yet to respond to the lawsuit, but it's as good a time as any for consumers to start understanding what egg cartons actually say and mean. The Humane Society has the following chart to help shoppers understand what means what:
I think the best option, if possible, is to source eggs from someone you know. Buy from the farmer's market or a local farmer, but be prepared to pay significantly more -- between $4 and $6 per dozen for hens who have been raised in kinder, more natural circumstances.
Alternatively, consider keeping your own small backyard flock. My family enjoys 5-8 fresh eggs daily from our lovely hens, who require very little work and feast on a mix of produce scraps and grain, converting it into eggs for our breakfast. It's a win-win situation for all, no carton decoding required.