It seems free range eggs are more popular than ever. The amount sold in the UK last year accounted for just over 50% of total egg sales, making them officially the most popular eggs available. So what does this tell us? Well, perhaps it would suggest that as consumers we are really starting to pay attention to where our food is coming from, and also taking an interest in the welfare of the animals producing it.
Compared to the second most popular egg, the “enriched cage” egg, free range eggs are only marginally more expensive, and come with the great feeling of knowing that no cruelty was involved in their production. Or so you would think. It may come as an unwelcome shock to learn that the rosy picture presented to us on our free range egg boxes is often far from the truth. Despite the clever marketing suggesting that free range laying hens spend their days clucking around areas of open British countryside, the truth is often far more sinister.
In order to qualify as free range, laying hens must have constant daytime access to the outside world, with available outdoor space of 4 square metres per bird. However, with nothing to stipulate how many exits from the barn must be made available, many “free range” facilities end up being nothing more than crowded barns with one or two small flaps available for outside access. With current EU regulations stating that the indoor housing for free range birds need only provide a square metre of space for every 9 hens, many modern barns can house well over ten thousand hens in cramped, multi-tiered facilities that are a world away from the happy free range chickens advertised on egg boxes and in television commercials. In fact, due to the sheer volume of birds living in these cramped conditions with such limited access to practical exits, many of Britain’s apparently free range hens will never spend any time outdoors at all.
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This new take on free range egg production may come as a shock, but disturbingly it is now an industry-wide common practice to house free range birds in such a manner. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) actually promote both flat-deck and multi-tier methods as a humane way to keep “free range” birds in numbers of up to 16,000 per individual barn, according to the 9 birds per metre EU rule. In fact, Myles Thomas – BFREPA chairman – believes the multi-tier system to be so efficient that he keeps a total of 48,000 “free range” hens in his three multi-tier barns in order to supply eggs to Sainsbury’s, ASDA and Aldi.
Investigations into so-called free range farms by groups such as Viva! have regularly shown just how cramped some of the barns really are, but also the shocking conditions that result from the birds living in such environments. Dead birds left to rot with their eyes pecked out, diseased and injured birds unable to walk, and birds showing signs of severe behavioural problems are just some of the discoveries made on free range farms in the UK. And despite public outcry when these reports are released, more often than not the producers are found to be breaking no official welfare laws when investigated by authorities.
And what of the male birds? It goes without saying that male chicks born into the egg industry have no practical use due to their obvious inability to produce eggs. The sad result of their economic uselessness is that male chicks are killed on the day that they’re born. This is usually carried out by gassing or mechanical maceration – essentially being dropped into a shredder, fully conscious. To find out that this is the case in caged or barn egg production probably wouldn’t come as a huge shock to most, but unfortunately this is the reality across the board – free range and organic eggs included. The same is true of beak trimming, a painful procedure carried out without anaesthetic which, although prohibited in organic egg production, is a common procedure on modern free range farms. And what happens to egg laying hens when they are no longer hitting their laying quotas? They’re slaughtered, of course.
The reality of modern free range egg production is that profit still takes precedence over animal welfare. With farmers being put under continuing pressure to produce animal products at cheaper prices, and regulations allowing producers to slap free range labels on produce that is anything but, it’s becoming harder and harder for consumers to make ethical choices. And what about the producers who do put animal welfare before profit? Even if you can look past the cruelty of killing day-old male chicks, these more humane producers are practically indistinguishable from their more intensive and unethical rivals on the supermarket shelves.
If the growth in the free range egg market tells us only one thing, it’s that people do care about where their food comes from, and how the animals that produce it are treated. The question we should really ask ourselves therefore is this: if we care about chickens enough to buy free range eggs, shouldn’t we care about them enough to ditch eggs altogether?
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