Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Beyond the gate: The problem with free-range eggs

Yesterday I read an article that really challenged me.

Before reading it, I had already viewed the egg industry with suspicion, then Chas Newkey-Burden presented a case that made several points clear.

1) 'Free-range' barely ensures free range.

2) Intensive production causes hens to lay eggs at a wildly unnatural rate - 500 rather than 20 per year.

3) Commercial production compromises the welfare of chickens and chicks.

A 'free range' egg farm in Cornwall

The first thing to say is that free-range is still preferable over cages or barns. Caged hens are so limited to roam that they cannot practice natural behaviours, and experience musculoskeletal weakness. However, there is great variability in the welfare of hens in cage-free systems. Whilst there is often ample space outdoors, many are too cooped up to access the barn exits.

Now, surely if you raise your own chickens and let them run wild, that would be okay? Newkey-Burden seems to say no... well, he dismisses such questions without a valid response. I'd argue that it is probably fine. I fear his hard-line approach that demonizes "flesh guzzlers" is more likely to win-over the already won-over. Whatever dietary standpoint you take - vegan, vegetarian and carnivore standpoint - there is good reason to reconsider your purchases.

It partly depends on your valuation of animals as sentient. Many of us believe animals are aware of their emotions, feelings and perceptions. For example, they can feel pain and experience pleasure. If so, they should have the some or full rights to freedom, and should not be caged (or even owned, some argue).

We might assert that since humans are technically part of the food chain, we should have the same rights as other carnivores to eat animals or animal products.
Male chicken sexing
The difference, it seems to me, is that most humans in the developed world don't hunt; humans are the only animal that have the capacity to breed, control and domesticate animals. Whether or not this is in itself an abuse, we ceaselessly abuse this power through many unethical practices - from lasering bird's beaks to stop them from pecking each other in frustration of their cramped conditions, to crushing new-born male chicks, which have no egg-laying capacity and whose lives are therefore worthless in anthropocentric estimations. The commodification of food means that chickens' lives are ended prematurely because it has no economic value.

This has huge implications for food waste. Any other animal wouldn't see a young male chick and think "well he's clearly not useful, so I'll kill him and throw him in the bin." They would eat him! In parts of the world that are much more disconnected from the global food system and rely heavily on small-scale fisheries, food waste is low at production stages. Whatever the catch, it provides vital micronutrients, protein, calories and fats, and communities have no need to be picky.

What makes it worse is the ambiguity of labels. Under EU law, you can have a maximum of 9 'free range' hens per square metre. The higher the density, the greater the risk of pecking in greater densities (hence the need for beak trimming). In multi-tiered free-range systems, metal staging allows for more natural roosting behaviours, and reduces smothering, cannibalism and aggression. Some free-range companies ensure that their outdoor spaces include trees and sheltering spots, whilst barn hens have no access to the outdoors. From a commercial standpoint, complex environments and outdoor access increases the risk of diseases and parasites, and requires more cleaning. But in these environments, hens can more easily practice natural behaviours, such as making choices based on social and thermal preferences.

These nuances in management practices and conditions hugely impact animal welfare, but how little a label tells us! We've been led down the garden path to believe that we can maintain ethical standards and still expect 90p for a pack of 6 free-range eggs. Until this age of cheap food ends, the industry will keep spinning these mistruths.

If you want the animals that produce your food to live decent lives, here are a few options:

1) Buy locally and ask about the farms/farming practices. Directories for local producers and food councils/assemblies are a good place to start.

2) Seek advice on the most ethical brands from websites like Ethical Consumer, who provide score ratings on a number of variables.

3) Go vegan

Unfortunately, supermarket eggs don't promise high ethical standards. Organic status provides the highest levels of welfare for hens, but even that only ensures up to 6 hens per square meter.

For the better brands, we should expect to pay more, because they more truthfully reflect the cost of ethical and sustainable production. Alternatively, buying locally from smaller farms is a good way of getting more ethical produce cheaper than at retail.


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