Pastured eggs come from chickens that are free to wander outdoors in a pasture where they can eat grass, worms, bugs and whatever else pleases their palate. The eggs these hens lay are now available in some supermarkets and speciality stores. They can be much costlier than organic eggs, ranging in price from about $5 to $9 a dozen. While there is no legal definition of pastured chickens, Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a non-profit certification organization, has set the standard for eggs labeled “pastured.” Whether pastured eggs are worth the higher cost depends on whether you think they are better than eggs from chickens raised in factory settings.
To meet the HFAC standard and earn the “certified humane” designation, egg producers must show that hens are outdoors year-round with access to housing where they can go at night to protect themselves from predators. The organization also mandates that producers allot 2.5 acres per 1,000 birds and rotate the fields. At this writing, only three “pasture raised” egg companies and one “free range” company have earned HFAC’s “certified humane” label.
You might think that the same general principles apply to “free-range” hens, but while that phrase may suggest happy chickens wandering round a barnyard or field, the reality is that most live in huge industrial aviaries with, on average, one square foot of space apiece (although a new California law requires that chickens be given enough space to extend their limbs and turn around freely).
Legally, the term “free-range” means that hens have “access” to the outdoors, but in practice that access usually amounts to not much more than a few small doors – comparable to a cat door – that allow the hens to get out onto a screened porch where some grass may or may not grow. Most of the birds never go outside.
Sadly, an estimated 95 percent of eggs in the U.S. come from chickens raised in cages that house from four to 12 birds, giving each bird roughly 67 square inches of floor space (about the size of an iPad).
Organic eggs come from “free-range” chickens that mostly live in large, crowded aviaries with limited outdoor access. Legally, to qualify as organic, eggs must come from chickens raised on organic (no pesticides) feed. Pastured eggs aren’t considered organic.
As for nutritional value, some evidence suggests that pastured eggs may be better for you. A 2010 study from Penn State showed that they had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids as eggs from caged hens.
Don’t confuse “pastured” with “pasteurized,” which designates eggs that have been heated to just below the coagulation point to destroy pathogens. These are sometimes available in supermarkets but most are used in commercially prepared foods.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
“’Free Range’ and ‘Pasture Raised’ officially defined by HFAC for Certified Humane® label”, Humane Farm Animal Care, accessed August 19, 2015, http://certifiedhumane.org/free-range-and-pasture-raised-officially-defined-by-hfac-for-certified-humane-label/
H.D. Karsten et al, “Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens.” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, January 2010, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1742170509990214