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Industrial Free Range!

44 per cent of hens in Britain are categorised as ‘free range’ (including an estimated 2 per cent organic). Competition and a high demand has led to falling egg prices and farmers housing larger flocks to yield an even greater output of eggs. Free range egg production looks set to take up an even bigger chunk of the industry over coming years also with more companies switching to cage-free. Today, European legislation permits flocks up to 2,500 birds per hectare.

Unfortunately, free range hens are free ranging in name only. We know this as we have been to free range farms before. As part of Cracked campaign, we visited a cross section of farms across Britain - from the small, selling eggs locally, to the huge - operating under the infamous names such as ‘Happy Eggs’. Some were organic, Soil Association and RSPCA-approved.

Even without the cage, the overcrowding, confinement, injuries, frustrations and death remain. Increasing demand for free range eggs means huge stocking densities and rife competition between birds. UK legislation requires small pop holes leading to a ‘range’ on the farms, though studies reveal that many hens won’t take even one step outside the vast, stinking overcrowded sheds. One piece of research in particular showed that the maximum number of hens observed outside during daylight hours at any one time was less than 15 per cent of the total flock. 

Injurious feather pecking remains a widespread problem on both enriched cage and free range farms, and beak mutilation remains the egg industry’s standard ‘solution’. A ban on the practice almost came into force, but the industry has lobbied hard against it. The Chairman of the British Free Range Egg Association (BFREA) stated: “We must keep lobbying our MPs so that they are fully aware our industry is not ready for this legislation to be put into place”. This sounds like an admission that free range farming is no good for hens!

A 2010 investigation by Viva! at a large free range ‘Happy Egg’ farm revealed the few hens who did make it outside onto the waterlogged range were scrawny, had poor feather cover, and appeared ill. Inside the sheds, sick, collapsed and featherless individuals were living amongst thousands of other birds. An excruciating and obviously severe red mite infestation had also taken hold.

Laying hens on organic farms are categorised as free range but with additional standards set out by an approved certification body. Under the Soil Association label however - supposedly one of the strictest organic welfare standards in the world - young hens (pullets) can be housed inside for up to 18 weeks. At an organic rearing farm, the health of these so-called higher welfare individuals may also suffer due to the absence of routine antibiotics. Organic laying hens of course also end up in the slaughterhouse. Later than the usual 72 weeks, yes, but still as young birds who would live years in the wild.  

The public are being sold a carefully constructed lie. Buying free range is buying into industrial farming. An industry that supports the mass killing of baby male chicks. 40 million annually. And a life of misery for hens, painful mutilations, a terrifying journey to the slaughterhouse and a brutal death for the so-called ‘spent’ hens. This is the true cost of eggs.

Investigation findings 

Viva! visited free range and organic farms across Britain. Including those operating on behalf of one of the top egg producers, Noble Foods. A company that supplies 60 million eggs a week. Chickens in the wild would typically live in small flocks, yet on some free range farms visited by Viva!, hen flocks ran into many thousands. 

In appearance, the sheds are similar to those housing hens laying ‘barn’ eggs. Our investigators found that the hens, whilst uncaged on free range farms, had comparable feather loss to hens on enriched cage farms. It was unclear during the investigation which hens went outside during the day, though studies show that many hens living on free range farms never go outside because of high stocking densities, competition for access from other birds, and inadequate outside conditions. Hens can be fiercely territorial and will guard the exit holes!

Each farm visited by Viva! investigators revealed hens living in the same dismal, hellish environment. At one farm in Spalding supplying eggs to local retailers, the floor inside the shed was gridded metal and the air thick with dust. Extensive feather loss was observed on many individuals. Dead birds were filmed both inside the shed, and also piled on top of each other in a bin outside. These bodies were swarming with maggots and flies. Viva! sent findings to veterinarian, Dr Andrew Knight, who commented: “Carcasses represent both an infection hazard, and also a food source for rats, which can then attack living hens, especially if ill or weak”.

On another free range farm, Viva! investigators found a bird who was clearly very sick. She was swaying on the spot and apparently unable to walk. Dr. Knight commented, about birds with severe feather loss: “An immediate consequence of this extent of feather loss is an inability to thermoregulate (stay warm) unless fat, but subordinate (pecked) birds might also have less access to food .. another common consequence from persistent pecking is skin injury and ultimately cannibalism”.

An organic free range farm visited by Viva! investigators in East Sussex is considered a ‘model’ farm and has received the Compassion in World Farming Good Egg Award. It also carries the seal of approval from RSPCA. Whilst conditions were arguably better here than on other farms we visited, similar problems were documented such as feather loss and the overcrowding of sheds. There was also a hen with a deformed beak and a dead hen lying on the filthy floor.

At an organic, free range farm stamped by Soil Association in Wiltshire, there were two sheds each housing around 2,000 hens. Birds here were observed with sore-looking, bald patches on their backs and abdomens. Possibly the result of a mite infestation. At another RSPCA-Assured, organic and free range farm in Lincolnshire, birds were housed in a packed out shed. Some were balancing precariously on thin wire running along the rafters, possibly to escape the sea of birds below. 
 
The sad reality is, many of these birds are unlikely to ever see the sunlight or walk on grass.

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Viva! goes undercover inside so-called 'free-range' Spalding egg farm

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