Navigating the egg aisle is no walk in the park for even the savviest of shoppers. You aren’t alone if you’ve pulled out your phone to look up a frustratingly nondescriptive term mid stride before committing to a dozen eggs. As conscientious, informed consumers, we all deserve transparency. You surround yourself with people who match your energy, so why not ask for the same from your eggs? It’s the 21st century. Confusing, shady terms aren’t it. Cage-free doesn’t pass the vibe check. But what does? Read on to learn what pasture-raised means in the egg industry, what it looks like in practice, and how a pasture-raised approach differs from others such as cage-free and free range.
All eggs aren’t created equal
As is true of virtually every product we choose to purchase, there’s something consequential about the way a dozen eggs came to be. From the lifestyle of the hens to the management of the farmland, every individual element of the process has an impact both on our planet and on the quality of the egg. Do you remember cracking open your first Consider Pastures egg? It’s an unforgettable moment conducted by a thick, healthy shell, a substantial egg white that doesn’t spread across your pan like water, and a stunning amber yolk that’s hues away from what the eggs in that grey paper carton have to offer. Surprise! These markers of quality are all the result of a pasture-raised lifestyle.
What does pasture-raised mean?
In the egg industry, the term pasture-raised denotes a particular kind of lifestyle afforded to egg-laying hens. The word “afforded” is deliberate here because the vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States aren’t even given the privilege of seeing sunshine. Pasture-raised isn’t one of the USDA’s regulated terms, so third-party certifiers are the determinants of today’s pasture-raised standards. Standards therefore vary from egg brand to egg brand, but the general meaning of the term is the same: pasture-raised hens are given the opportunity to roam on green, grassy pastures every single day. In general, every hen in a pasture-raised flock has anywhere from 35 to 108 square feet of pasture to herself. Third-party certifier Certified Humane requires the upper end of this scale for its pasture-raised certification. Benefits for the hens include healthier, more fulfilling lives; the ability to practice natural behaviors and instincts such as foraging, dust bathing, and perching; and a varied, species-appropriate diet.
How is pasture-raised different from cage-free and free range?
Cage-free and pasture-raised standards are night and day. While pasture-raised hens spend their days outdoors in the fresh air, cage-free hens are confined to a warehouse-esque barn and never see the light of day. Although it’s a step up from tiny, cramped cages, cage-free standards are nowhere near humane. Free range, on the other hand, is a responsible way to raise egg-laying hens. Free range standards stipulate that hens must have access to pasture on a daily basis, weather permitting. The major difference between free range and pasture-raised standards lies in the actual amount of pasture space designated to each hen. Per the USDA, there’s no minimum space requirement for free range hens. But in the case of third-party certifier Certified Humane, it’s 2 square feet.
The importance of third-party certifications
Unfortunately, scanning the egg aisle for a carton that proudly displays the term pasture-raised isn’t the end all be all of informed grocery shopping. Because the USDA doesn’t regulate the term, it’s essential to seek out third-party certifications. Even in the case of free range, the USDA isn’t nearly as stringent as most third-party certifiers, leaving the important work of recognizing and understanding specific standards up to the consumer. There are many third-party certifiers in the United States, but Certified Humane, Humane Farm Animal Care’s certification program, is arguably the most transparent, rigorous, and objective of its kind.
Our pasture-raised standards
Among many additional research-based requirements, Certified Humane sets the following standards for pasture-raised farms like Consider’s:
- Pasture area must consist mainly of living vegetation
- The pasture must be designed and actively managed to encourage birds outside and to use the area fully
- The pasture must be rotated periodically; a written rotational grazing plan must be in place
- Birds must be outdoors 12 months per year, every day for a minimum of 6 hours per day
- There must be sufficient well-drained, shaded areas for hens to rest outdoors without crowding together
- Cover, such as shrubs, trees or artificial structures, must be distributed throughout the pasture
- The pasture area must include patches with loose substrate suitable for dust bathing
- All birds raised on pasture must have access to fixed or mobile housing that keeps them dry and protects them from wind and from predators
We’re fierce advocates for pasture-raised standards and firmly believe that they lay the groundwork for better business and the pinnacle of egg quality. However, our philosophy isn’t rooted in a simple “the more space, the better” argument. Consider this: with our food system in distress and our planet facing an environmental crisis, is it really ethical to lean on the notion that animal welfare is where responsible egg farming begins and ends? We don’t think so.
As part of their surrounding ecosystems, pasture-raised hens both affect and are affected by the land that they call home. Naturally, it matters what farmers do with that land. By coupling pasture-raised standards with the holistic practices and principles of regenerative agriculture, Consider Pastures farmers are putting pasture space to use in a deliberate, calculated way. Planting wildflowers to assist in pollinator health, increasing organic matter and carbon sequestration via strategic use of cover crops, and multi-species livestock integration are just a few of these efforts – efforts that actively renew and regenerate our farms’ pastures and land. So while pasture-raised standards are our foundation, we also believe that giving back to the earth is paramount to farming responsibly.