An "old-school" henhouse (Photo (c) ITamar-K, Wikimedia Commons)

Subway is the latest to jump on the cage-free-egg bandwagon, announcing that by 2025, all of its restaurants will be using eggs from chickens whose yearning to breathe freely has been granted, unlike longtime Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, who has been imprisoned for paying minors for sex.

Subway thus joins McDonald's, Taco Bell, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts, Panera, and a fast-growing collection of food vendors claiming that only the most freely ranging chickens have been recruited to produce their eggs.

In fact, says Subway, it is not the latest but was among the first to go cage-free when it began serving breakfast back in 2010. It already uses cage-free eggs in Australia and eggs from free-range hens in Europe.

“We know how important it is for consumers to feel confident that the food they eat is ethically sourced, and our customers care deeply about animal welfare,” said Elizabeth Stewart, Subway’s director of corporate social responsibility.

Subway's cage-free egg commitment coincides with a new advertising campaign undertaken partly to compensate for the downfall, disgrace, and conviction of Fogle, who for years displayed his lessened girth and attributed it to the "fresh" processed-meat sandwiches that supposedly constituted the bulk of his diet.

Artificiality eschewed

The new ad campaign also celebrates Subway's plans to eliminate artifical color, flavors, and preservatives by 2017 and eliminate antibiotics from its protein products in the U.S. by 2025.

The cage-free movement may be in danger of becoming a ploy for marketers, but it has its roots in a serious concern about the filthy, unhealthy conditions that characterized most chicken ranches until the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) launched a drive to improve conditions for chickens and, in the process, produce healthier food for humans.

But the recent boasts of major food producers don't necessarily say all that much about the day-to-day lives of the millions of hens who help feed a hungry nation. (Roosters are about as useless to chicken ranchers as baby bulls are to dairy farmers; roosters are killed pretty much immediately and baby bulls, if they're lucky, live a few months before being served up as veal). 

Cage-free vs. free-range

There's a lot of confusion surrounding all of this, as we noted a few weeks ago in "If a chicken can't cross the road, are its eggs organic?" First, to be certified organic, a food product must meet USDA regulations having to do with the feeding of the animal. They must be fed vegetarian feed that is free of pesticides and antibiotics.

The terms "cage-free" and "free-range" are not regulated by the USDA and are largely voluntary, like "natural," another popular but unregulated label moniker. This Humane Society chart can help decipher the jumble of marketing claims and egg labels:


Thus, "cage-free" eggs may come from a hen who is locked up in a henhouse for most of her life, even though she is not confined to a tiny cage, as was once the case. While such chickens may be let out for brief periods, their lives are certainly far from "natural," depending on your definition of normalcy.

The Humane Society defines "pasture-raised" chickens as the freest of the lot. Eggs from such hens are likely to be more expensive, as the number of chickens lost to predators tends to be higher and collecting the eggs is much more labor-intensive, similar to seeking beige-colored Easter eggs.

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