Higher welfare alternatives for egg laying hens include free-range, cage-free, and enriched battery cage production systems. In the US, only a small fraction of eggs (approximately five percent) come from cage-free systems.
In the US, egg producers must show that the birds they raise have some kind of outdoor access in order for their eggs to be labeled “free-range”. Clearer standards are available from third-party humane certifications.
Animal Welfare Approved standards for egg-laying hens require outdoor access from the age of four weeks, as well as continuous access to adequate housing. Indoor housing must provide at least 1.8 square feet per laying hen in order to facilitate freedom of movement and the expression of natural behaviors.
Certified Humane standards do not require outdoor access. However, they do establish requirements for producers that do provide outdoor access.
All chickens certified as USDA Organic must be given at least some outdoor access, and must be raised without antibiotics.
Cage-free systems (no outdoor access)
While the term “cage-free” is legally undefined, cage-free systems typically house layers on the floor of a barn or aviary. Even though cage-free systems may not provide outdoor access, they do allow for greater expression of hens’ natural behaviors. They can stretch, flap their wings and fly. They can also perform other natural behaviors such as pecking, scratching and laying their eggs in a nest.
All egg producers carrying the Food Alliance certification are required to use cage-free production systems.
Enriched battery cages
Enriched battery cages provide more space than battery cages but they are still restrictive, hens can’t fly up to a high perch to be safe from feather pecking, the litter area is often very limited and effective dust bathing isn’t possible. Because these cages provide only marginally better welfare than battery cages, Compassion in World Farming opposes them in favor of cage-free systems.