Why the free-range egg label means little

brown eggs
CC BY 2.0 brianna.lehman

Just because eggs are labelled 'free range' doesn't mean a chicken's life is much improved.

Free-range egg producers in the United Kingdom are worried about an order to keep their birds indoors until the end of February. Because of an avian flu outbreak in Europe, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has ordered that all free-range hens, whether providing meat or eggs, cannot be outside. Should the order extend past the end of February, then producers will be forced to downgrade their status from free-range to ‘barn’ eggs, which will affect prices and public perception.

Outspoken vegan and Guardian writer Chas Newkey-Burden argues that the status does not really matter because “there’s no such thing as an ethical egg.” He calls the free-range label one of the meat industry’s most audacious cons:

“You’d need Disney-level imagination to believe the UK can produce more than 10 billion eggs each year without inconveniencing any chickens. But by slapping ‘free range’ on the label, and perhaps a nice pastoral scene with a few chickens roaming free, most consumers never realise how the eggs came to be in the box.”

Newkey-Burden paints a bleak and distressing picture of that process, which involves debeaking young chicks by burning off the tips without anesthetic; forcing hens to lay upwards of 500 eggs annually with intense lighting and high-protein feed; and brutally killing off the male chicks who are useless to the egg industry.

Even when birds are supposed to be free-range, they can still be kept in cramped sheds (up to nine birds per square meter) with exits to outdoor space that they’re not necessarily able to find or capable of using.

In other words, free-range is an enormous marketing trap into which 56 percent of UK egg-buyers have fallen.

Is there a way to buy eggs ethically?

I like to think so. There is a big difference between the factory farm version of free-range and the backyard chicken version of free-range. I buy eggs from a friend whose birds roam her farm freely, going into the barn only at night, where they’re housed in a fenced-off corner of the barn. They eat vegetable scraps and some grain, but there are no lights. The egg supply is unreliable in wintertime when the hens don’t lay, and then we just go without.

Newkey-Burden probably wouldn’t agree with me, but then his priority is to reveal the best-kept secrets of factory farming, something that all of us need to acknowledge. He urges shoppers to remember what eating eggs really means:

“Millions of animals enduring painful, miserable lives so humans can consume the product of chicken periods as a source of protein, or to make nice cakes.”

Also crucial to understand is the connection between intensive farming (even the free-range type) and the avian flu that has led to the housing order. It’s by keeping birds in such tight quarters in terrible filth and eating antibiotic-laced food, without allowing them the freedom to bathe in dust, peck at insects, and otherwise maintain themselves as they would naturally, that such outbreaks occur – and will continue to, as numbers of captive animals increase with demand.

It’s time to look behind the labels and question what actually lies there.

Tags: Agriculture | Animals | Animal Welfare

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