How free range is your free range egg?

Posted 21st July 2016 03:24pm by

How free range is your free range egg? by Jane Howorth, Founder

My passion for hens led me to start a charity for chickens, and when I established the British Hen Welfare Trust it was with a view to giving supporters open, honest and clear information.

The rise of free range egg production continues, and this is of course good news, but there is a sense within the egg industry that some British farmers are giving the free range sector a bad name. It’s a question we’ve asked before – how free range is your free range egg? Below is the rundown on what’s in your egg box in terms of welfare.

Organic free range eggs
At the top of the welfare pecking order is the organic hen; flock size is restricted to 3,000 (6 hens per square meter indoors) and she is free to range on organic land and fed an organic diet. She continues to enjoy the best in terms of nourishment and lifestyle throughout her laying life. ‘Traditional’ free range eggs The commercial free range hen can typically live in a flock as small as 400 or up to 32,000 (9 hens per square meter indoors) she has access outside but is not fed on organic feed.

However, being a free range hen in the modern world is an increasingly complex issue. Most of us think of a free range hen pottering about an orchard, scratching for bugs and slugs, laying an egg in a traditional hen house which is collected by the farmer (think Darling Buds of May). Package imagery validates a farm fresh, eat-me-with-a-clear-conscience egg and those of us who are discerning shoppers think we are doing our bit for animal welfare when we pop the free range half dozen into our shopping basket.

However, a free range egg now encompasses such a wide variation that consumers could be forgiven for questioning the fairness and honesty of what’s on an egg box, never mind what’s in an egg box.

The luckiest free range hens can enjoy living in a small flock of 4,000 or less; they can access pastures with range enrichment such as trees, shade and shelter provision. Brands such as the happy egg co. and Woodland Eggs offer good examples of range enrichment designed to encourage foraging and other natural behaviours.

‘Multi-tier’ free range eggs
Stepping aside from what we traditionally consider to be ‘free range’ – small flocks and green fields – it all becomes a little vague. Free range multi-tier hens live according to the same rules and regulations as a traditional free range hen, the difference being that a free range multi-tier hen lives within a hen house full of metal staging. Multi-tier free range is high rise, city living with access outdoors. However ‘non-traditional’, this stark environment does provide birds with the opportunity to behave in a natural fashion and so from a hen’s perspective multi-tier free range living is pretty acceptable – she can embrace her jungle fowl ancestry by roosting on metal branches rather than trees and can still forage outside by day.

So what does it matter that our egg box doesn’t tell us more about where the hens live?
The difference between a traditional free range hen house and a multi-tier hen house is important to the farmers who take pride in offering their hens the best in commercial lifestyle, and they are increasingly unhappy that consumers cannot easily identify ‘real’ free range eggs.

We agree, and think consumers would like to know the quality of life the hen has enjoyed, and we’d like to see the industry address the growing segmentation within the free range sector in a positive way, keeping it simple at the same time.

Barn eggs
Of course there is the barn hen who lives in a huge barn and whilst she can freely move around within the barn, she cannot at any time venture outdoors. The barn egg in the UK is very poorly supported by consumers representing less than 3% of total egg sales. The reason for this is uncertain but could be because consumers generally fall into two camps – those that want to support free range egg production and those that don’t prioritise animal welfare and place value for money at the top of their wish list when shopping.

Colony caged eggs
Finally, we have the caged counterpart; a hen bred in exactly the same way as barn, free range and organic hens, but selected for cheaper egg production. She will live in a large metal cage for her entire life, and be contained within one ‘colony’ housed within a unit containing hundreds of similar colonies all with up to 90 hens in each. Colonies are tiered and a single ‘hen house’ may contain many tens of thousands of birds within colony
cages. It’s an efficient and cost effective way to produce cheap eggs, but a hen will not be given access outdoors at any point.

What determines a hen ending up caged or free range?
All chicks are hatched and kept in rearing units until they reach pullet stage around 18 weeks and then go onward to a farm be it organic, free range, barn or colony. Whatever their lifestyle all hens go to slaughter at around 72 weeks of age as egg production slows and egg shell quality drops. She could live for years but, she would not produce enough eggs to satisfy consumer demand for cheap food products.

The future
The British Hen Welfare Trust wants to see a strong British egg industry above all else, so that we can maintain and improve welfare, and support our great British farmers.

However, we would like to see improved egg box labelling and the current segmentation within free range go a few steps further with clear information for consumers on exactly how laying hens are kept. Hiding behind hackneyed marketing terms is outmoded, and lacks clarity and transparency. Let’s be clear that colony eggs are from hens kept in cages; be more positive about barn eggs (a well- managed barn hen can enjoy a lot
more freedoms than a colony caged hen); and be frank about free range.

There is a market for all farmers, and a moral obligation to give consumers the full picture. Whether we create new labels for multi-tier hens or label ‘traditional’ free range hens Approved Free Range is for the industry to explore and consumers to support.

Transparency in my view will enhance appeal – so come on UK egg industry, unscramble your boxes please!