Here at Nellie's Free Range, we truly believe happier hens lay the best eggs. But what does it mean to ensure a happy life for egg-laying hens in such a complex farming industry? For starters, we were the very first Certified Humane free range egg brand in the country! That's a good indication that we've cared deeply about animal welfare since the beginning. In practice, it means our free range farms were the first of their kind to commit to following this third-party certifier's strict, rigorous requirements for egg-laying hens.
And, as part of our commitment to the humane treatment of animals, we also believe it's our job (and joy!) to celebrate the recent victories won on behalf of laying hens through an exciting wave of cage-free legislation. That's right, friends! In case you haven't heard, egg-laying hens across the United States will soon be guaranteed a safer and more spacious lifestyle thanks to a series of states standing up and saying no to caged eggs. Keep reading to learn what this means for the egg aisle, animal welfare, and everyday shoppers just like you.
What does cage-free mean?
Before diving into the newfound freedoms given to our feathered friends, it's important to understand exactly what these freedoms look like. It might sound like common sense to assume that "cage-free" simply means no cages, but there's more to the story when it comes to egg labeling. Because the term isn't upheld by any USDA or FDA standards, each state is left to define it for itself. So far, the standards set for cage-free eggs by individual states have typically included a ban on battery cages and an increase in the amount of space offered for each hen, with most states setting the standard of 1 square foot of usable floor space allotted per hen. While they don't usually require an outdoor access policy like our partner farms here at Nellie's Free Range, cage-free housing systems are also meant to offer more opportunities for hen-friendly activities, such as areas to dust bathe and perch. Long story short, while there isn't exactly a universal standard for these elements of cage-free living, the one thing all states' standards have in common for the term is the banning of cages.
Wait, so how do hens live in states without cage-free standards?
In states that don't have laws in place requiring the eggs they sell to come from hens in cage-free conditions or better, you can expect most of the eggs on their grocery store shelves to come from conventional factory farms. Factory farms are exactly what they sound like: unbelievably huge warehouse-like buildings where egg-laying hens are packed by the millions into tiny battery cages, often with no access to sunlight or fresh air, let alone the outdoors. These battery cages can be as small as the footprint of a piece of printer paper, rendering the hens unable to move in any meaningful way, much less spread their wings or display most of their instinctual behaviors. So while cage-free systems may not be the gold standard of animal welfare, they certainly offer a better life than these factory farms. If your state has yet to introduce legislation for cage-free or better conditions, we encourage you to use your voice as a shopper by calling your representatives and vote with your dollar by choosing third-party certified free range eggs like Nellie's.
The transition to cage-free in California and Massachusetts
So how did laying hens in California and Massachusetts earn their newfound freedom as of 2022? In both states, questions about humane animal care and egg-laying hens made it onto the voting ballot. On election day, citizens turned out and cast their vote to improve welfare standards for farm animals. Massachusetts passed historic Question 3 in 2016 as the nation's strictest animal welfare law with a victory felt across the nation...all the way to California, where 2018 voters similarly passed historic Proposition 12 with overwhelming public support. Now, these states are spearheading the transition to cage-free eggs with the earliest deadline set for January 1, 2022.
Given the recent studies proving that public demand for products from humanely raised animals has increased significantly, the victories won in California and Massachusetts come as no surprise. The support raised for these campaigns sends a clear message to lawmakers that the desire for a more humane egg aisle reaches across state lines. This comes at a time when retailers, restaurants, and grocery stores continue to adopt stricter standards for all the products they're willing to sell. With support and demand for humanely raised products on the rise, more states are now considering a ban on battery cages and caged eggs as they worry about their farmers and local economies, knowing that shoppers and suppliers can and will go elsewhere to purchase humanely raised eggs - and the rest of their groceries, too. By passing Question 3, Massachusetts is leading the way for other state legislatures to raise the bar for humane animal care in their state while ensuring their local farmers have a market for selling their products.
Which states require cage-free standards or better?
Today, a growing flock of states are following the example set by California and Massachusetts with commitments of their own. Take a look below for a current list of states on their way to a future without caged eggs:
California's Proposition 12 was approved by voters in 2018, requiring all eggs sold in the state to be laid by hens living in cage-free conditions or better by 2022.
Colorado passed House Bill 1343 in 2020, requiring all eggs sold in the state to be laid by hens living in cage-free conditions with 1 square foot of floor space or better by 2023. Colorado's bill also requires all egg-laying hens in the state to be housed in the same standards or better by 2025.
Massachusetts' Question 3 was approved by voters in 2016, then went on to become Bill S.2470, requiring all eggs sold in the state to be laid by hens living in cage-free environments with 1 square foot of floor space or better by 2022.
Michigan passed Senate Bill 174 in 2019, requiring all eggs produced and sold in the state to be laid by hens living in cage-free conditions or better by the end of 2024.
Nevada signed Assembly Bill 399 into law in 2021, requiring all eggs produced and sold in the state to be laid by hens living in cage-free environments or better by the end of 2024. Nevada's hens will also be guaranteed enrichments like perches, nests, and dust-bathing areas under AB399 - thanks, Nevada!
Oregon's Senate Bill 1019 was passed and signed into law in 2019, requiring all eggs produced and sold in the state to be laid by hens living in cage-free conditions or better by 2024.
Thanks to the hard work of local animal welfare advocates and state representatives, Rhode Island passed House Bill 7456 in 2018 requiring all egg-laying hens in the state to be housed in cage-free environments or better by 2026.
Utah's governor signed Senate Bill 147 into law in 2021, requiring all egg-laying hens in the state to be housed in cage-free environments with 1 square foot of floor space or better by 2025.
Washington's House Bill 2049 was signed into law in 2019, requiring all eggs sold in the state to come from cage-free (or better) laying hens by 2023.
The difference between cage-free and free range
In the fight for a more humane egg aisle, supporting grassroots movements like the campaign to pass Proposition 12 in California is a great place to start - but that's not where animal injustices end. There's still a big difference between the Certified Humane Free Range standard upheld on Nellie's Free Range farms and cage-free farms. Cage-free housing may offer a more humane environment than caged systems, but the hens living inside spend their entire lives indoors. This is markedly different from the clean barns and open pastures our Certified Humane Free Range hens enjoy, and why we advocate for farmers going beyond cage-free for an even more transparent egg industry.
At Nellie's, we've committed to providing a safe and clean home for our hens that allows them to do exactly what hens love to do most: roam in the pasture, lay in the shade, and eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh grubs and greens. While we understand this isn't the carefree existence offered to all egg-laying hens, we take pride in knowing that we're doing our part to ensure a comfortable life for our hens while supporting a safe and secure food system for all.
How can I help improve the lives of laying hens?
So what does this mean for everyday shoppers who want to support kindness and transparency in the egg aisle? When in doubt, the best way to ensure your eggs came from humanely raised hens is by looking for third-party welfare certifications like Certified Humane. More important than unregulated terms like cage-free, these seals are backed by rigorous welfare standards to guarantee that items like our eggs and sous vide egg bites come from hens that live happy, fulfilling lives. You can also take a step further by letting the ASPCA's Shop With Your Heart label guide your grocery list and help you avoid egg, dairy, and meat products raised on inhumane factory farms.