Barnyard Buddies

What do "Cage-Free" and Free Range Really Mean?

By Jesse Laflamme

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We get this question at Nellie’s Free Range Eggs a lot. And it’s no surprise. The egg aisle has more unique terms these days than Doritos has flavor varieties. Free range, cage free, pasture raised, GMO Free, Organic, Farm Fresh, All Natural, and the list goes on. Particularly, when it comes to humane standards like Cage Free and Free Range, it can be very hard to know the difference.

But, there is very significant difference between the Certified Humane Free Range standard that we use and “Cage Free” that you are seeing more and more of in the marketplace. (The quotations around Cage Free are there because, as you will see, it’s quite misleading).

Most people would reasonably assume Cage Free to mean “no cages.” But the term is not a regulated standard by the USDA or the FDA (Free Range is defined by the USDA). So egg producers are left to define it for themselves. And as you might expect, the gigantic factory farms that have always brought you conventional eggs, laid by hens imprisoned in tiny, floor-to-ceiling battery cages inside massive warehouse complexes, are now either converting these same factories to “Cage Free” or building new ones, as you can see in the photo above.

And what is going into all of these “Cage Free” egg factories? You guessed it – cages. Bigger, more complex cages than before, but cages nonetheless, with no doors to the outside. The “farm” depicted in the photo is expected to produce 1.5 million eggs per day. I’ll repeat that, 1.5 million per day!

There is no question that placing 10 giant buildings the size of aircraft hangers on a flat piece of earth in the middle of nowhere allows for some serious labor efficiency in terms of handling and processing eggs. But we don’t think consumers would consider it farming. At our small farm in New Hampshire, we deliberately stopped building new barns, becoming less efficient in the process, because we wanted instead to partner with other small farms around the country like our own.

Because we don’t want to be confused with the now misleading term Cage Free, at Nellie’s Free Range, we have adopted a Free Range standard certified by the respected Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) organization. Our floor style barns have no cages, period. There are doors every few feet, allowing one and all to come and go when the weather allows. We even have policies of our own for humane care that exceed those set by HFAC.

Please watch our video that helps explain the important difference between Certified Humane Free Range and Cage Free so you can be as informed as possible about the eggs you buy.


Natalie VanRandwykMarch 08, 2019

Dear Nellie’s, thank you for your thoughtful farming ethics. I have always wondered about the labels on eggs that say “vegetarian” hens. Having raised chickens, I know they are not vegetarian - eating all manner of insects, worms, amphibians, etc. To me, this seems like a red flag saying that our chickens never go outside. Your eggs are bar far the best I’ve purchased at a grocery store. Thank you for making them available to Publix.


We're so touched by your loyalty, Natalie, and while our chickens are not considered "vegetarian" as they certainly enjoy their pick of grubs and bugs in the fields, we firmly believe that letting them eat in their naturally omnivorous way is very important for keeping them happy!

John SchmidFebruary 24, 2019

We love your eggs. Of all the organic, free range, etc. eggs we have tried, Nellie's has the darkest, orangest yolks of any we have found in this country. We know that is important, as it is an indicator of nutritional content. My wife is recovering from breast cancer surgery and just finishing up post surgery treatment - chemo and radiation. As such, I have a couple of concerns and questions. Nellie's does not advertise as 'organic'. How close to organic are they? And does the feed you give your chickens soy free? Oh! Nellie's are also the best tasting eggs we have found, either in the grocery store or from small farms. And we eat a lot of eggs. Thank you for a superior product.


Thank you so much for your kind and generous feedback, John. We hope your wife is resting and we wish her a swift recovery. In terms of feed ingredients: our eggs are not USDA Certified Organic, so we cannot guarantee that the corn, soy, and other nutrients and electrolytes that the chickens consume are free of GMOs. That being said, we have a sister brand call Pete and Gerry's that is USDA Certified Organic. If you're interested in giving those eggs a try, you can find more information here:

Catherine BakerFebruary 16, 2019

We love your eggs & appreciate the care that you provide your hens!


Hi Catherine, thanks for taking the time to leave such a sweet comment. We'll pass the compliments on to our happy hens! :)

Richard ThomasFebruary 10, 2019

We bought some nellies eggs the other day and they were very watery. Here is our address 47 treasures place queensbury ny 12804


Hi Richard, we're so sorry to hear that your recent carton of our eggs was not up to standards. Do you mind sending us an email at [email protected] so that we can gather more information and replace this carton for you?

Betty ThomasJanuary 23, 2019

Great product, thanks for being available in my area.


Thanks so much, Betty! We're so happy we are able to bring some farm fresh eggs from our happy hens to you!

Elisabetta ValesiDecember 01, 2018

I cracked an entire six pack of your eggs this morning and they all had two yolks each. How does that happen?


Wow! Sounds like it was your lucky day, Elisabetta. Here's a blog post that explains why double yolks occur:

Micky WatsonOctober 31, 2018

Thanks for explaining


You're quite welcome, Micky!

MichaelOctober 22, 2018

Are the hens killed, after they have served their purpose?? Lay eggs


Thank you for this thoughtful question, Michael. At the end of a flock’s natural laying cycle, we contract with several poultry transportation and processing companies to purchase our birds. These companies send trained and certified humane handling poultry crews to our farms to pick up the hens. At this point, the hens belong to that company, but we have worked with them to ensure that our birds are going to acceptable follow-on markets. You can learn more about this process in our FAQ section.

Annette BatsonOctober 17, 2018

What is your response to this: From what I've read, your eggs may technically qualify as "free range" however if the thousands of barn floor chickens don't have easy access to exit the barn, then they really don't have "free range." With thousands of chickens in your barn, it would be impossible for the majority of them to reach the small doors to get out in the fresh air. Likewise, I question how in this situation each individual chicken can access food and water? Before I purchase your eggs again, I will need to know your beloved chickens are truly free to range. It shouldn't be hard to modify the barn to truly allow all of the hens to roam outside. Thank you.


Hello Annette, At Nellie’s Free Range, we are deeply committed to ethical egg production on free range small family farms. In 2003 we became the first Certified Humane egg producer in the US. We also believe in transparency when it comes to food production. That’s why we conduct public tours on family farms to allow consumers to come and see exactly how our eggs are produced. During those tours we allow photography and videos because we are proud of the way we produce and have nothing to hide. The photo in question was captured on one of those tours. Every aspect of the Frey Family Farm depicted in the photo meets Certified Humane’s Free Range standards. The hens have the ability to move freely throughout the barn and to go outside onto grass pasture. Free range and pasture-raised hens spend part of their days inside and part outside. Hens are social animals and like to congregate closely together. So while it may look crowded, we assure you the hens are comfortable. If you’re interested in getting a more comprehensive look at our farms, the following video is a great resource: If you have any additional questions, please feel free to send us a direct message or email us at [email protected], as we’d be happy to answer them.

Gary M BelfordOctober 11, 2018

What do you do with your chickens when their egg-bearing years are over? Do you send them chicken slaughterhouses?


Thank you for this thoughtful question, Gary. At the end of a flock’s natural laying cycle, we contract with several poultry transportation and processing companies to purchase our birds. These companies send trained and certified humane handling poultry crews to our farms to pick up the hens. At this point, the hens belong to that company, but we have worked with them to ensure that our birds are going to acceptable follow-on markets. You can learn more about this process in our FAQ section.

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