Where is the free in free-range eggs? Why free-range eggs aren’t ethical

Author: Lex Rigby

Read Time:   |  16th June 2021

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Lex Rigby from Viva! examines the truth behind the 'free-range' label and discovers a much grimmer reality than is port rayed by the farming industry with it comes to free-range eggs. Read on to find out why free-range eggs aren't ethical...


Despite the battery cage being banned in 2012, the UK still confines more than 16 million hens to what are known as enriched or colony cages.

Between 40 and 80 hens are housed in each cage, with little more than a postcard size of extra space compared to a standard battery cage.

Although enrichment, such as nesting screens, scratch pads, and perches are provided, the reality is that most birds are unable to access them due to strict pecking orders in the colony.

As a result, many hens are denied the freedom to carry out natural behaviours like scratching, dust-bathing and roosting.

Are free-range eggs ethical?

Campaigns against the ‘cage age’ and the refusal of some supermarkets to sell caged eggs has led to a rise in free-range egg production systems.

Now making up around 56% of the UK egg market, free-range eggs are sold to consumers as an ‘ethical’ alternative.

However, the images of happy hens exploring rich green foliage and preening their thick brown feathers are incredibly misleading.

Free-range chickens and intensified egg-laying

Descended from wild jungle fowl more than 8,000 years ago, modern hens have been selectively bred to produce unnaturally high numbers of eggs for human consumption.

Hybrid breeds include the Golden Comet, Leghorn, Australorp and Rhode Island Red, who unlike chickens bred for meat (otherwise known as broilers), are prized for their 250-300 eggs a year – which is around 20 times more than their wild ancestors.

This ramping up of a hen’s egg-laying capacity has hijacked her body and the physical process of laying that many eggs takes a devastating toll.

Whether caged, free-range, or organic, the consequences are the same – egg peritonitis (infection and inflammation in the abdominal cavity), prolapses, osteoporosis, keel bone fractures due to a lack of calcium, and even cancer.


How much freedom to roam do free-range chickens have?

Unlike birds reared in caged systems, free-range hens must have access to the outdoors. Yet the required minimum of one ‘pop hole’ per 800 birds and the territorial nature of chickens means dominant hens guard the holes; a high percentage of the rest never see outside.

The barns, or rather industrial sheds, in which these birds spend the vast majority of their short lives are severely overcrowded, usually artificially lit and have high levels of ammonia due to waste build-up.

Housing tens of thousands of birds in a single unit leads to widespread respiratory disorders – infectious bronchitis (IB) and infectious bursal disease being the two most common. IB will usually infect every bird in a flock once it takes hold and can lead to the deaths of a quarter of all birds in the flock.

As more supermarkets pledge to go free-range by 2025, the size of these units are getting bigger – with multi-tiered systems on the rise.

One recent application, for example, is proposing to build three huge 250-metre sheds to house in excess of 190,000 ‘free-range’ birds. The bigger the sheds, the more birds they can house, but it doesn’t mean better welfare.


Behaviour problems with free-range chickens

Previous investigations carried out by Viva! have uncovered awful conditions where large numbers of birds were found crammed into stinking sheds with little environmental enrichment.

At one free-range farm there were numerous hens, practically bald from extensive feather-pecking, that never ventured outside.

Feather-pecking can start when the chicks are just a few weeks old and develop into injurious feather-pecking or IFP, which rapidly spreads and leads to severe injury.

A visibly open wound, or blood coming from one, can in some cases then drive the hens to cannibalism – despite all having their beaks trimmed at birth as a preventative measure.

The main reason for stereotypical and aggressive behaviour like this in laying hens is squarely down to the unnatural way they are kept, which – even in higher welfare cases – does not reflect their natural state, nor allow them to express natural behaviours.

Bird Flu outbreaks among free-range birds

As with all forms of factory farming, the intensification of egg-layer units has created a breeding ground for disease. Frighteningly, some diseases in chickens can also be passed onto humans, with fatal consequences.

While most of us have been preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, poultry farmers in the UK have been facing a lockdown of another kind.

In early November 2020, the risk level for avian influenza (or bird flu) was raised from ‘medium’ to ‘high’ and a national Avian Influenza Prevention Zone declared.

Legal requirements for enhanced biosecurity were implemented and more than 155,000 birds were culled as a result of numerous outbreaks.

Avian influenza is highly contagious between birds, transmitted when an infected wild bird comes into contact with farmed poultry or vice versa, and like Covid-19 it is a zoonotic disease that can spread to humans. Strains of this disease that have infected humans include H5N1, H7N9, and H9N2.

Since 2003, there have been 861 reported cases of H5N1 human infections and 455 deaths. Although instances of humans spreading the virus to others are rare, it has been recorded as having a 60 percent mortality rate in infected patients.

From 14 December 2020, all bird-keepers had to keep their birds indoors in a government crackdown to limit the spread of the disease – including free-range poultry farmers.

In removing access to the outdoors, free-range egg layers are no longer afforded any greater ‘freedom’ than barn-raised birds, which made up about 3% of the market.

Despite the change, eggs produced by the affected birds were allowed to be marketed as free-range for another 16 weeks. Only after that, and if no circumstance change, will they be downgraded and need to be relabelled as ‘barn-produced’.

Of all the animal products humans consume, eggs are generally thought to be one of the least harmful, and when we’re offered promises of happier, healthy hens enjoying the great outdoors, we justify their continued exploitation. Yet just because a hen is free from a cage doesn’t mean she’s free from pain and suffering.

Now you know that free-range eggs aren’t ethical, it’s time to cut them out of your diet.

If you’re wondering what to use instead, check out our ultimate guide to vegan eggs.  

Written by

Lex Rigby

Lex joined Viva! in 2018 after more than a decade campaigning to defend, conserve and protect marine wildlife. As Viva!’s Head of Investigations she is responsible for coordinating hard-hitting investigations to support Viva!’s ground-breaking campaigns, with the ultimate aim of growing veganism in the UK and increasing support for Viva!.

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