Have you seen those little blue stickers on the packs of eggs recently? The ones telling you that hens have been temporarily housed in barns? It’s because there’s been a bout of Avian Influenza (AI), a disease that’s bad news for the chicken population of the UK so they’re all being kept indoors to prevent it spreading and these stickers are part of that process.
A few weeks ago somebody on Twitter was questioning whether it’s right to carry on buying these eggs, if the hens are no longer free range. It’s a good question, and not a very easy one to answer. I also realised that many people might not know the difference between barn eggs and free range eggs, so I’ve written this post to spill the beans on how the 35 million UK laying hens spend their lives. After reading this, you can make a decision on whether to keep on buying those eggs or not.
Avian influenza can be transmitted by wild birds, so DEFRA have told farmers to keep their birds inside, away from risk, until it’s safe again. A full scale outbreak of AI would result in a LOT of birds being culled, so keeping them inside – if it really helps to control the disease – is the most humane option to stop the disease spreading.
Sadly, this means that our free ranging hens, who would normally run around outside during the daytime, between popping out eggs, must stay inside until the ban is lifted.
Do You Know Your Eggs?
Now, I’m sure you’re a conscientious consumer who considers what food you buy, that’s why you’re reading a food blog, because you care about food. But do you know the difference between an enriched egg and a barn egg? Between free-range and organic? If not then I’m here to save the day and give you the skinny on the different ways hens are kept.
To start with, all livestock raised in the UK should have the following five freedoms, regardless of whether they are a caged hen or an organic chick.
These are rights which animals are entitled to, all farmers should strive to provide them. Beyond that, there are four current levels of welfare for your regular egg-laying hen.
These were the poster chicks of animal cruelty, and were banned by the EU several years ago, with their absolute removal required by 2012.
These hens spend their lives indoors, in a communal cage (although the floor must not be mesh), with 750cm2 of space per bird, which is equivalent to 27cm x 27cm. The hens have a nest, 15cm of perch each, a litter area for pecking and scratching, plus unrestricted access to feed and water. All major supermarkets have pledged phase out the use and sale of these eggs by 2025.
Barn hens also stay indoors for their whole life, however their welfare standards are otherwise exactly the same as free-range. Up to nine hens per square metre of barn space are allowed, which is 1,111cm2 per hen. They can all mingle and socialise together, with no compartments or divisions to separate them. There should be litter covering at least 33% of the ground’s surface, 15cm of perch each, unrestricted feed and water plus nesting space.
Free rangers are exactly the same as barn, except they have daytime access to outside space which is covered with vegetation and allows 4 square metres per hen. This is the privilege that has been removed with the AI outbreak.
Organic hens need even more space, 10 square metres bird and are kept in smaller flock sizes. Also, they do not have their beaks trimmed at birth, a practice which prevents them injuring each other. Lastly, these birds are not allowed to eat genetically modified feed, most other systems such as free range, do use genetically modified feed. These hens are also not allowed outside under the current ban.
The Social Life of a Chicken.
Chickens are highly social animals that enjoy living in groups. They are also prey animals, which means that other, bigger animals like to hunt and kill them, this means that chickens are naturally nervous about large open spaces, so the ability to go outside is not the primary feature that keeps chickens in tip-top condition. If the other welfare standards are being adhered to, these hens will still be living comfortable, happy lives.
If we all stopped buying eggs because they have been temporarily suspended from being free range, then demand would decrease, leading to an oversupply, which could result in birds being slaughtered. The profit margins for farmers are extraordinarily small, they will not continue raising birds which aren’t earning their keep. That may sound draconian, however you must remember that these chicks were born and raised solely to lay eggs, so even without the current restrictions on ranging, they would still be slaughtered before the end of their natural life. That’s industrial agriculture for you.
Keep Buying Eggs.
That might sound like you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, but you’re not. The best thing that we can do is keep buying eggs as we always have, which will support farmers, who generally want the best for their animals. Boycotting these eggs will achieve little, but if we keep buying it will help not just the farmers, but also the hens who do all the work as well.
In time, assuming the restrictions are lifted, then we can all resume service as normal, including the hens.