In terms of current consumer popularity, around 55% of all eggs sold are cage produced; about 9% are barn laid; and approximately 34% are free range. (Organic and other specialty eggs make up the other 2%).
Price wise, cage produced eggs are the least expensive to buy; free range are the most expensive; and barn laid normally rest somewhere inbetween. But this in no way denotes ‘a pecking order’ or ranking of egg quality. All three choices have exactly the same nutritional value; and it is important to recognise that differences in the taste of all eggs are determined solely by the quality and formulation of what hens are fed ~ not the actual husbandry system used.
It is differences in the farming costs of producing cage, barn laid and free range systems which largely dictate how much we actually pay for our eggs. Modern, well- maintained cage systems have the lowest of all hen mortality rates; far less incidence of manure borne diseases and parasites; fewer injury problems caused by hen in- fighting; more effective protection against foxes, eagles and other predators; and a significantly reduced need to bear the high cost of veterinary medications and interventions.
This, along with improved efficiencies in bird handling and daily egg collection, all combine to keep cage prices the cheapest of the choices available. Under both barn laid and free range systems, greater exposure to health risks and hen injury and loss is typically reflected in increased egg production costs ~ which, as business people, farmers are forced to pass on.
Of all the main protein foods, egg production has the lowest carbon footprint. Yet even here, recent environmental research conducted by the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd (AECL) shows that greenhouse emissions produced via cage systems is 20% lower compared to free range. Simply because they use less feed per kilogram of eggs produced.
With respect to hen welfare, everyone is entitled to their own opinion as to whether it is better to buy the eggs of a free range chicken that is allowed to wander around outdoors; a chicken which can move freely inside a barn which protects it against the elements; or a cage chicken which enjoys the benefits of better disease control; a temperature-controlled living environment; and greater protection not only from predators, but also the stresses of feather-pecking, fighting and even cannibalism.
The real fact of the matter is that there is no right or wrong answer; no ‘pecking order’; and certainly no scientific evidence to suggest that the wellbeing of hens suffers in well-maintained cage systems.
At the end of the day, which eggs you choose to serve is all about personal preference.