More and more eggs at markets are labelled as "cage-free"—it certainly sounds good, but what does it actually mean?
"Cage-free" marked on a carton of eggs means that the hens laying those eggs are, quite simply, not kept in cages.
The Basics of "Cage-Free" Eggs
In theory, the hens that lay eggs labelled "cage-free" are free to walk around the hen house, to perch on roosts, and to lay eggs in nests.
This is in great contrast to most laying hens, which are kept in cages so small that they can't fully open their wings, much less walk or move about.
"Cage-free" eggs are also fairly widely available at mainstream grocery stores, unlike the less common pastured eggs, which has no legal definition or third-party verification, but is usually used by small farmers who raise their chickens on natural pasture.
In short, "cage-free" eggs are a solidly better choice than most commercial/industrial eggs.
The Best Case Scenario
Perhaps the eggs labelled "cage-free" also have "free-range" on them and come from hens that were allowed outside more or less at will, at least during the day. They may even have had green pasture to explore, allowing them to exhibit the natural behavior of hunting-and-pecking for seeds and insects that grow in the grass.
The Reality of "Cage-Free" Eggs
That said, "cage-free" chickens are kept in hen houses, often in cramped conditions, and may or may not have access to the outdoors or pasture. Without other or further labels explaining how the hens who laid the eggs were raised, "cage-free" is better than nothing, but not the gold standard.
Why Egg Labels Matter
For those looking for the best quality eggs from hens allowed to exhibit natural behaviors, pastured eggs from hens raised by small farmers who may even invite you to visit their farm, so proud are they of how they treat their animals, will prove to be a revelation. Since the hens were allowed to get some of their diet from greens and plants and insects, their yolks aren't just yellow, but verge towards a bright, sunny, almost-orange color.
At the very least, getting "cage-free" eggs means you've avoided supporting the worst of the egg industry's all too common practices.