“Laid in Britain…by hens free to roam, peck and cluck in the Great British countryside.”
So reads the text on cartons of free-range eggs from Asda, one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. The phrase ‘free-range’ often evokes images of happy hens roaming free over rolling hills. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the vast majority of hens.
What does free-range really mean?
To understand the problem, it’s helpful to look at the welfare standards for free-range hens. Perhaps the most significant is the maximum stocking density, which is 9 hens per metre square. So in other words, it’s perfectly legal to cram 9 hens into one square metre of shed. And because it’s profitable, this is often what happens.
Look at a photo of a commercial free-range egg farm, and you’ll see it’s little different to a caged one. There may not be any bars, but the birds are crammed in just as tightly. This leads them to peck at each other, so they are often debeaked without anaesthetic – just like caged hens.
Access to a hectare of outdoor space per 2500 hens is required, along with a 2m opening for every 1000 birds. However, the cramped conditions and pecking order often prevent hens from reaching the outdoors. Additionally, many hens are simply too frightened to venture outdoors. The outdoor space is often muddy, with little in the way of stimulation.
Disease and deaths
With so many birds in such a small space, it’s no wonder that diseases and parasites such as red mites can spread rapidly. Undercover investigations have shown that hens are often bedraggled, missing clumps of feathers. This is confirmed by the state of many birds rescued from free-range farms. Even hens which have been debeaked sometimes peck others to death. Undercover investigators have found multiple dead hens lying around on free-range farms.
A particularly compelling example is the ironically named Happy Egg Company. An undercover investigation found horrific conditions on their farms, contrasting with the idyllic images presented in the company’s advertising. Watch a news report on the investigation below.
What about organic eggs?
In the UK, organic welfare standards are higher than free-range ones. Birds must have more space, and some standards forbid debeaking altogether. So does this make organic eggs cruelty-free? Unfortunately not.
In the hatcheries which produce layer hens, male chicks are seen as a by-product (as they don’t lay eggs). This means they are killed at one day old. They are either gassed, suffocated or ground up alive. This is done regardless of whether the eggs are organic. When we buy eggs, this is what we support.
And there’s another problem. Chickens’ ancestors would only have produced around ten eggs per year, as eggs are the end product of their reproductive cycle. But we’ve bred them to produce around one egg per day. This puts a huge strain on their bodies, often resulting in their becoming deficient in nutrients like calcium. Some hens develop osteoporosis as a result. For this reason, I don’t believe eggs are ever truly ethical.
What can we do about it?
The answer is simple – stop buying eggs. We just don’t need them. It’s time we ended the exploitative relationship we currently have with animals. We treat them as machines to be manipulated, used and taken from, with little regard for the toll it takes on them. This is why I will never eat another egg, no matter how well the chicken was treated. Eggs are easily replaced, both in baking and otherwise. Think tofu scramble, for example. But a discussion of egg replacements is beyond the scope of this post – I’ll do another on the topic in the future.
Some people may decide they’re still happy to buy free-range or organic eggs. If this is you, here’s one final thought. When you buy packaged food containing eggs, do you know if those eggs are free range? When you eat at a restaurant or accept baked goods from a friend, do you know how the animals that produced the ingredients were treated? And if not, how much does your commitment really mean?