Are you one of the British egg-lovers who have helped make free-range sales over 50% of egg sales? Well done if you are, but you might be questioning your wisdom if you read yesterday’s reports suggesting it’s better to buy eggs from caged hens because they live in more humane conditions. Really?
Let’s have a quick look at the backstory to this. Last year, right across the European Union, the keeping of hens in barren battery cages was banned. These cages can hold five birds (and more in some countries), giving each less floor space than a sheet of A4 paper, so that they stand day in, day out, on a sloping wire mesh floor, unable even to flap or stretch their wings, never mind laying their eggs in a quiet and comfortable nest. (Research shows that this nesting behaviour is very important to hens.)
Since then, our hopes of a massive move to free range systems have not yet been realised. The industry has just put more hens in larger cages – so called enriched, or colony, cages.
In such conditions each hen has only a little more floor space than a sheet of A4. And each cage has a nesting area behind some plastic flaps. (I hear the hens often queue to take their turn.) There’s also a token perch. I say token, because a perch is something that a hen flies up to – like the branch of a tree, to be safe from predators. Her jungle fowl ancestors worked out that this was a safe place to spend the night. The “perch” in the colony cage is just a rod a few centimetres off the wire mesh floor. The hens will often sit on it: yes, it’s got to be more comfortable than the wire, but research shows that they are now getting more foot sores as the pressure on their feet is continuously in one place. There’s a token scratching area too.
In a free-range farm the hen lives in a house where she spends the night and there are proper nest boxes in which she can be quiet and comfortable while laying. All day she can roam outside at will, flap and stretch her wings, have a little fly, forage and scratch in the soil or have a dust bath to clean her feathers. In the best farms there will be plenty of trees or bushes, so she can shelter under them if she notices an aerial predator like a hawk.
Of course there are poorly managed farms of any type. The fair thing is to compare the best of each system. A well-run free-range or organic farm gives each hen the potential for a decent quality of life. A well-managed cage system can never offer this.
So please join the wise consumers who are happy to pay a little more for their free-range or organic eggs, knowing that each time they do, some hens, somewhere, are leading a happier life.
This blog was first published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free website on Wednesday, November 13, 2013