What Do Cage-Free, Free-Range and Pasture-Raised Eggs Mean?

by Rootstock Editor

June 13, 2019

by Rootstock Editor

Humane animal care in our food industry is an enormous challenge, and we believe that business-scale food providers—like us —can and should do a heck of a lot more to assure humane animal care when an animal is involved in the food you buy at the store. We should be held accountable.

So let’s give a peck about chickens in this post, specifically the hens who lay our eggs.

When you look at the mind-boggling array of egg cartons in the dairy case and the even more boggling “claims” on those cartons, how do you know what’s what?

Instead of going after the ways other brands interpret these claims in their animal care programs, we’ll focus on our hen care standards and what they mean for Organic Valley birds. We’ll address that in light of the most common claims you see on labels.

First, humans know what we need and want, but it makes no sense to impose our needs and wants on another living being, especially one that’s avian, not mammalian like us. Hens know best what they need. It’s up to us to observe and interpret as best we can what makes them happy and comfortable. So that’s what we’ve done for 25 years.

A low angle view of three chickens out on grass in the sunshine.

A bird’s-eye view of the pasture at the Glick family farm in Pennsylvania.


Cage-free is the squirrelliest of the claims because, although it sounds good, it still leaves birds open to a world of other inhumane treatment. Our hens are NEVER caged, so this isn’t even a factor for Organic Valley hens. But here’s a bit more context on this claim: Cage-free chickens can still be crammed together wing-to-wing in a giant indoor space—sometimes even having two levels—containing hundreds of thousands of birds. Cage-free does not require natural lighting or airflow, and it does not require outdoor access.


Free-range is another tricky claim. Many people who buy eggs believe “free-range” means the hens are not caged (true) and they are roaming outdoors most of the time (eh … uncertain). Unfortunately, it is not a USDA-regulated term, so it can mean different things depending on the brand. 

And most important: Free-range is not the same as organic. Free-range hens may still be fed GMO feed and feed grown with chemical pesticides or herbicides, none of which are allowed in organic production. 

“Free-range” hens often have access to the outdoors, but birds are a naturally suspicious species, so they may not be comfortable venturing outside, instead choosing to stay inside all the time. The outdoor space could be very small, or not engaging for the hens, or not be (or feel) safe. Fenced cement porches are also allowed in free-range. This may allow the hens fresh air, but they have no access to grass or dirt. 

Unless a brand participates in a voluntary free-range certification program, there’s simply no consistency with what “free-range” means from brand to brand.

An overhead view of rows of brown eggs in a bright yellow rack.

Eggs are placed in racks and are ready for washing and packing at the Welsh Family Farm in Iowa. 


Pasture-raised is also not as cut and dried as it should be. There are no industry-wide regulations on this claim, so pretty much any egg brand can claim it, even if their birds only have a small, bare-dirt area by the barn with no water or food available. Which means the hens won’t bother going outside.

However, some third-party certifiers specify 108 square feet (10.4 by 10.4 feet) of total indoor and outdoor space per bird in order to use a certified pasture-raised label. It’s not clear how that gets divvied up between indoor versus outdoor space. Hens don’t like going off on their own—it’s instinct—so even if they have a huge amount of land, if the farthest pasture area looks too far away from their chicken’s-eye view, or looks risky to get there, they won’t make use of their whole space. This is why it’s important to factor in bird behaviors when creating a farm habitat for egg laying hens.

Another important thing to remember is that even though there is a certification, pasture-raised is not the same thing as organic. Certified pasture-raised hens may still be fed GMO feed or feed grown using chemical pesticides. Plus, because it’s voluntary, there aren’t severe consequences if a farm or brand doesn’t follow the rules (unlike with USDA Organic, which is government-regulated and very strict).

Free to Forage™: Organic is Our Foundation

To eliminate the trickster elements of all these claims, we are putting all our eggs in two baskets: USDA Organic, and Free to Forage™.

Free to Forage is our way of clarifying what proper care of chickens means to us in action—beyond the words on the package. Organic Valley birds must have access to fresh air, sunshine and organic pasture: an outdoor space that is free of toxic pesticides, herbicides or GMO plants. It’s about going above and beyond the animal care requirements of the National Organic Standards to provide birds with what our 25 years of experience raising chickens has shown us they need. 

For example, we enhance the birds’ outdoor space by providing habitat hens want: a safe space to scratch in the grass and straw for bugs, dirt areas for dustbathing, access to food and water 24/7, and trees or structures to provide shade and protection from predators. 

In our barns, we require plenty of right-sized doors to encourage hens to go outdoors, natural lighting, and plenty of perches to satisfy their instinct to perch. The only time our hens are kept housed is at night and during bad weather. All other times, they are free to choose where they go and when.

A flock of brown hens emerges from a chicken-sized door in a red barn.

Hens on the Toews family farm in Colorado on their way out of the barn for the day.

Why did we create our own Free to Forage label instead of using other certifying agencies?

The biggest reason is because those certification programs don’t have USDA Organic as their foundation. Not only is being organic hugely important to us, it means we have standards that don’t fit into other third-party certification programs, such as no pesticide or herbicide use in pasture areas, and what kind of feed is allowed.

The National Organic Program is the result of an act of Congress. These standards, including their humane animal care practices, are legally mandated and regulated by the USDA. There are very real consequences if producers go out of bounds. Between the USDA Organic seal and Organic Valley’s own additional animal care requirements, based on our farmers’ decades of hen-raising experience, we are giving our laying hens excellent care and a high quality of life.

Another reason is that those other certifications cost money, which would have to be factored into the cost of the eggs somewhere. There are fees for certification, fees to use the seal on packaging, and the agency would get a cut from every egg we sell. These extra costs would result in either reducing our farmers’ incomes or increasing prices for consumers. We don’t want to do either of these things, so we choose to not to use additional certifications beyond the USDA Organic seal (which is already a significant expense for farmers) plus Organic Valley’s own above-and-beyond Free to Forage standards to avoid these unnecessary added costs.

The root of the matter is this: Farmers deserve fair and stable pay prices, and you deserve fairly priced organic eggs.

We know the labels on egg packages can be confusing, but when you see “USDA Organic” and “Free to Forage™” on Organic Valley egg packages, you can be assured that we are putting the hens first. We maintain a bird’s-eye point of view when it comes to caring for our chickens, which means continuous improvement in our care standards as we learn and grow.

* While Organic Valley hens are Free to Forage™ outdoors, we take proactive steps to protect our flocks, including increasing biosecurity and keeping hens inside when the situation calls for it. Keeping hens indoors is the exception in the rare case there is a high-risk situation where the health and safety of a flock is compromised by outside variables such as the bird flu or other outbreaks across the country.