Decoding the Terms: Cage Free, Free Range & Pasture Raised Eggs

You’ve seen the egg cartons in the grocery store: “Cage Free!” and “Free Range!”.  And the newest one to hit the market “Vegetarian Raised!”

Well, you might be surprised to learn that those terms do NOT even remotely mean what you think they mean.

cage free eggs

With the exception of “Pasture Raised”, most of the terms used on an egg carton have been hijacked by the egg industry as marketing ploys.

When I fully came to understand this, I was outraged. Obviously, most of the people who would go to the trouble of buying a “Cage Free” egg are doing it (and paying more money) because they think it is better for the environment and the chicken. They also think produces a better egg.

But that is not the case. Not even close!

Filming at Polyface FarmTo help spread the word on the TRUTH behind these marketing terms, I recently wrote an entire segment into our Growing A Greener World episode at Polyface Farms where I have host Joe Lamp’l explain the differences. (That episode will air nationally on PBS on August 4, 2012)

And now, I am posting here in an effort to spread the word so we can all make the best choices. So here is the scoop:


This only means that the chickens were not in cases. They can still be confined in very close quarters inside a building where they are standing in their own muck and can barely move. They have little or no access to the outdoors.

cage free eggs


According to the USDA regulation, “free range” only means that the chickens were allowed “access” to the outside with no specifications as the quality or the duration of that outside exposure. So unfortunately, this term is mostly used where the chickens are crammed in large warehouses that has a small door on one end that opens to a few feet of outside dirt space. Most of the chickens never even know that door exists and couldn’t get there even if they wanted to.

Vegetarian Eggs


This is a newer term that is appearing on egg cartons. People read it and think, “Wow. The chickens must be fed healthy vegetables and grains.” Ummm…no. A chicken is a natural carnivore. It likes to eat bugs and insects. A “vegetarian raised” chicken was completely raised on industrialized feed (probably GMO) and was never allowed outside. EVER.


YES! At the moment, THIS is the term to go for.

Although it does not have any current regulations, it is being used by sustainable farmers to mean chickens raised in the the pasture. Pastured raised eggs are what we think they are. This is what you want to buy if you are shopping for eggs. (Until the industry hijacks this term too.)


For more information, here is an EXCELLENT video by one of my favorite websites Lexicon of Sustainability. It is only a few minutes long but very artfully explains why Pasture Raised is currently our best option if we care about the health of the chickens and the health of our environment.

Lexicon of Sustainability: The Egg Video


For other fun homeateading information and tips, visit The Barnhop over at Homestead Revival!


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About the Author

Theresa Loe is the Co-Executive TV Producer and the On-Air Canning/Homesteading Expert for the national PBS gardening TV series, Growing A Greener World. She is a lifetime canner and a graduate of the Master Food Preserver Program. She studied both sustainable horticulture and professional culinary arts and she is a wrangler of chickens and two teenage children. (Not necessarily in that order.)

{ 21 comments… add one }

  • Geri Miller June 27, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Loved this post! I, too, feel there is a big need for clarification on these labels! Thanks for this…will share on the HGEL page.

    Reply edit
    • theresa June 27, 2012 at 10:03 am

      Thank you SO much Geri! I really, really appreciate the share. I got so fired up when I saw the misuse of the terms. I had to try to spread the word. Thanks for helping with that!

      Reply edit
  • Frances June 27, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Love this! Good to know honest ppl can get the truth out. I really enjoyed the read.

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  • TeresaR June 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    We would love to visit Polyface Farms one day. Joel Salatin came to Indiana University to give a talk a couple of years ago and we were able to have dinner with him…what a character!

    Thanks for the nice explanation of the different terms! We know them but it’s a wonderful reminder for everyone because it can be very confusing.

    Reply edit
    • theresa June 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Joel is a character! I also had the fortune to have a few meals with him while we were filming. It was an honor to spend so much time with him and he was more than generous with his time and knowledge. He’s a great guy!

      I have a post coming up on Polyface. I’ve been twice now and learn more every time I go!


      Reply edit
  • Debbie June 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I have backyard chickens and it drives me CRAZY to hear about “vegetarian” chickens. When we have too many eggs my husband takes them in to work and so we are also the default collector for egg cartons and I am amazed at how many people pay extra for that wording on their cartons. It again just shows how far removed we are from the food we eat when marketing ploys like that work. I am glad you brought that specifc term up!

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    • theresa June 27, 2012 at 2:14 pm

      Thanks Debbie. When I first saw “vegetarian” chickens I thought, “What the heck does that mean?!” And then it hit me! No bugs or insects. Geeze! I hope that by all of us talking about it, it will help spread the word.

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  • Carol June 27, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Sadly, haven’t seen any pasture raised eggs at my grocery stores, but will watch for them. I have paid extra for cage free & free range. Now I try to get eggs from local farmers markets. They don’t allow backyard chickens where I live. : (

    Reply edit
    • theresa June 27, 2012 at 8:33 pm

      I’m very sorry they don’t allow backyard chickens where you live. Bummer! The farmer’s market is your best bet for eggs. Then you know they are not from a factory. Keep watching for the pasture raised in the store. More smaller operations are starting to use that term.

      Reply edit
  • debbie T June 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    That’s a great video! So many people have no idea what they are paying for, and these corporate buzz words are great marketing!

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  • Jeanne Peters RD June 29, 2012 at 7:28 am

    Thanks Theresa for “unscrambling” these terms and giving us eggs-actly why pasture raised is the way to go ( along with doing what we know is best-raising your own chickens!!)
    I am going to re-post this at our Nourishing Wellness Medical ctr fan page to spread your info
    btw, I have also seen these terms used : Animal Welfare Approved -this label can only be used on food grown by family farmers or co-operative farms. Animals must have access to pasture (grassland). Animals cannot be fed growth promoters or unnecessary antibiotics, and must not be physically or psychologically mistreated.

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  • Stevie (@Garden_Therapy) June 29, 2012 at 10:14 am

    wonderful information. I’m so horrified and confused by how chickens are raised that I get mine delivered from a farm nearby. I coordinated a neighbourhood delivery and now 20+ of my urban city neighbours all get farm fresh eggs. Here is a photos of the chickens that feed us:

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  • sensiblegardening July 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks you so much for this info. I am tired of producers using terms of confusion in their labeling.
    It’s hard to know if what you think you are buying is actually what you are buying!

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  • Chris J October 29, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Good article. Very good. I suspect that even our dairy manager isn’t familiar necessarily with the variant meanings of these terms. In some cases, cage-free is an honest meaning, but not often.

    Good stuff!

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  • Arnold P November 12, 2014 at 5:33 am

    Look for the “Certified Humane” label, which covers a more specific criteria for “free range” vs “pasture” raised birds. See the website.

    Reply edit

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