In a bid to meet the rising demand for British free-range eggs, RSPCA Freedom Food has announced an increase in the maximum outdoor stocking density of free-range laying hens.
As a result of high profile campaigns by animal welfare organisations and celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Compassion in World Farming, the UK has seen a sharp increase in demand for free- range eggs. In 2008, over half of the shell egg market, by value, in the UK was from free-range eggs.
This increase in consumer demand for higher welfare eggs has lead to fears from the industry that this cannot be fully met by UK producers. It is believed that if producers could not meet the demand for British eggs, then often lower welfare eggs from overseas would be imported to meet the deficiency.
According to the RSPCA, the vast majority of free-range laying hen units in the UK are Freedom Food approved. It is through this assurance scheme that the animal welfare charity has worked towards finding a solution to this situation that was based on both science and expertise.
The EU legal maximum is 2,500 hens per hectare and following months of consultation and research the RSPCA Freedom Food outdoor stocking density has now moved to permit 2,000 hens per hectare.
Compassion in World Farming recognises the practical reasons for this measure. With the forthcoming implementation of the ban on the barren battery cage in 2012, it is important to encourage producers to invest in alternative non-cage systems during the transition phase.
Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming, says "The RSPCA move is a pragmatic step to avoid undersupply of eggs from higher welfare systems and to ensure that caged systems are rapidly phased out. Nevertheless, Compassion in World Farming believes it is important that hens have enough space for ranging. We would encourage this change to be reviewed regularly in the light of practical bird welfare."
The new measure will actually include some welfare improvements such as increased provisions for shelter under trees and vegetation to encourage birds to use all areas of the range. The greatly increased requirement for natural outside cover is a benefit to chicken welfare. The RSPCA stresses that unless a producer can fulfil the additional requirements they will not be allowed to increase the stocking density. It must also be noted that this change in standards will not affect the number of hens allowed indoors.