How ethical are your free range eggs?

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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Land of hope and glory: the truth behind British farming

In the last ten years the number of vegans in the UK has grown by 360%. Ask the average vegan their reason for adopting the lifestyle, and the majority of the time the answer will be “for the animals”. This comes despite the evidence that going vegan is great for our health and is hugely beneficial for the environment. It seems compassion for animals is still the number one driving factor for the huge surge in veganism in recent years.

Nowadays there is a wealth of information available online, and thousands of videos on YouTube showing the cruel nature of modern animal agriculture. However, so much of the available footage and statistics are from other countries, mainly the USA, that critics of veganism in the UK are quick to dismiss them. A common argument used against animal activists in the UK is that we treat animals so much better here than in other parts of the world. Many people refuse to believe that farmers in the UK would allow such obscene and cruel practices to take place on their farms, and are able to justify their continued support of the industry by adhering to this narrative.

This is what the makers of new documentary film “Land of Hope and Glory” have set out to change. Spurred on by the line “that doesn’t happen in our country“, the team behind the film travelled up and down the UK, working with a number of different groups to bring the reality of British animal agriculture into the limelight. According to the makers of the film: “through Land of Hope and Glory we aim to show the truth behind UK land animal farming by featuring the most up to date investigations as well as never before seen undercover footage, with a total of approximately 100 UK facilities featured throughout the film“.

Land of Hope and Glory tells the story of the 1 billion land animals slaughtered in the UK each year. Following the process involved in rearing, transporting and slaughtering pigs, cows, sheep and poultry, the film paints a bleak picture that conflicts heavily with the rosy image of British farming we are so often offered by the industry itself. What filmmakers Ed Winters and Luna Woods, of Surge Activism, have delivered through this film is a look at the inhumane methods that most people in the UK don’t realise are standard practices in British farming.

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Presented in four parts each focused on a different group of animals, the film guides us first through the world of pig farming where we learn about the bodily mutilations carried out on piglets without anaesthetic including teeth clipping and tail docking. The cramped conditions that the vast majority of pigs are kept in in the UK makes for difficult viewing, and the treatment of unwanted or unhealthy piglets and sows shown in the film is deeply distressing.

As the film moves on to cows, we learn of the heartbreaking fact that dairy cows have their calves removed from them just 24-48 hours after birth. This is not something that can be attributed to rare or isolated cases, as this is the case on the majority of dairy farms in the UK and is actually recommended by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). This is sadly not the worst thing that will happen to the animals during their lives – as the film shows – and for the calves is just the beginning of a short lifetime of misery and abuse.

The awful living conditions and brutal practices shown in this film will no doubt come as a shock to many, especially those who attempt to make more ethical choices by purchasing “humane” animal products. Sadly much of the footage shown throughout this film is taken from farms classed as free-range, organic, high-welfare, red-tractor approved and RSPCA-approved producers. What is most prominently highlighted in the film is the sad truth deliberately hidden from consumers which is that labels such as “free-range” are mostly arbitrary and actually misleading due to the rules applied to them. Most consumers who purchase free range eggs would be horrified to learn that the hens producing them were housed in dark, cramped barns, with virtually no access to the outside world, yet this is so often the case. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that there is no legal definition of “free range pork”, meaning farmers can keep pigs in any of the awful conditions depicted in the film, and still label their product as “free range”.

The film also dispels any myths about sheep and goats being the more fortunate of farm animals due to their generally being free roaming. Just like pigs, cows and chickens, sheep and goats are forced to endure a series of brutal procedures without anaesthetic, and are also subject to a number of terrible and widespread diseases. It is stated in the film, for example, that foot rot is present in 97% of British flocks.

Much of the film focuses on the hugely traumatic experience the animals all must go through on their way to the slaughterhouse. The animals, as young as 4-6 months old in the case of lambs, are transported for huge distances in cramped and overcrowded trucks, with no food or water and often in sweltering heat. Many animals do not even survive the journey to the slaughterhouse. Those that do are subjected to cruel and often ineffective stunning methods prior to slaughter. A statistic that will no doubt stand out to many viewers is that an estimated 1.8 million pigs regain consciousness on the production line each year due to poorly executed stunning techniques – and that this practice is still certified “humane”.

Land of Hope and Glory may be a difficult film to watch, but at its heart it is about educating consumers on where their money goes when they use it to purchase meat, eggs and dairy. It’s also a reminder that cruel farming practices are not something on which countries such as the USA have a monopoly. Modern British farming is not what the industry wants you to believe it is. The “happy cow” is a myth, and “humane meat” is a lie. Coming to terms with the truth behind how meat, eggs and dairy are produced in the UK is the first step towards making more informed, ethical decisions, which is something that we should all aspire to do. As Ed says in the closing chapter of the film: “it is ignorance that allows us to consume and purchase without considering the industries that we are supporting. And therefore, informing ourselves of the horrors our purchases perpetuate is not only a liberation for the animals, but indeed for ourselves as well.

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Open Farm Sunday: How much do we really want to show our kids?

For the 12th year running, farms across Surrey and Hampshire will open their gates to the public in June as part of a national event organised by LEAF. Intended as an opportunity for people to witness the work required to produce food and manage the countryside, parents are encouraged to bring their children to meet the animals and enjoy an educational, fun day on a working farm.

Most children, however, will have no concept that the animals they are interacting with are destined for slaughter; and even those that do understand this will likely never have to witness the journey from farm to plate. If our society wishes to keep promoting animal products as part of the national diet, then should we not also be having open slaughterhouse days, with tours and demonstrations? I doubt very much that any parents would be happy to allow their children to watch a pig being slaughtered, and yet this is just as much a part of the process as rearing and feeding them on the farm.

The fact is, when it comes to producing animal products there are only certain stages of the process which are suitable to show to the public, especially to our children. We would happily show a video in a school of apples being picked and processed, or bread being made; yet showing the “processing” of animals for meat would more than likely traumatise any child who watched it.

For the vast majority of vegans and vegetarians, the decision to give up meat was sparked by watching a video of animals being slaughtered by one of the many “humane” methods used in slaughterhouses across the country. For vegans, that decision goes one step further, as the production of eggs and dairy also leads to animals being slaughtered. Although it may be inviting to think that not all slaughterhouses are the same, or that free-range, organic or RSPCA monitored animals are killed in a “kinder” slaughterhouse; the fact is despite how they are raised, all animals are transported to the same destination in the end; there are no free-range slaughterhouses.

As a nation of animal lovers, we raise our children to love and respect our furry friends, and to never be cruel to them. We teach them that animals are sentient beings with personalities, that they dream and enjoy certain activities. We love to walk through the countryside with our children when the lambs are bouncing around the fields, with not a care in the world. Yet behind closed doors we allow something to take place that we could never bear to tell our children about, much less show them.

Open farm days may be informative, but they only show a fraction of the true story; and the fact is, few of us could stomach seeing the rest of what happens. So the question is: should we really be feeding our children something that they would almost certainly object to eating if they saw how it was produced?

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