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free range chickens

Is Free Range All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

Free range is on the up, with popularity growing for both meat and egg production across the UK. Even the country’s supermarkets and businesses are getting in on the act, and about time too. But there is a concern that free range might not be all it’s cracked up to be, at least not in the long term if some revisions to current standards are rolled out across Britain’s poultry farms.

A number of UK supermarkets have made the switch and stopped selling eggs from caged birds. In addition, an increasing level of support is being shown by businesses and corporations, who have made commitments to chicken welfare by banning the use of battery eggs in the production of their food, and this is certainly a feather in their caps. Hellmann’s have switched to only using free range eggs in their mayonnaise, Little Chef, who use 13 million eggs every year, and many other companies including the BBC, Channel 4, John Lewis and Debenhams have been recognised for cutting caged eggs from the menu.

Compassion in World Farming, who have been handing out ‘Good Egg Awards’ to congratulate those who make commitments to animal welfare to companies for 3 years now, including those mentioned above, have also been involved in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s flagship free range chicken campaign, ‘Chicken Out!’. CIWF was started 40 years ago by a farmer who was disgusted by the standards and conditions inflicted on animals under modern intensive rearing processes, and as well as working to promote free range, they work to put a stop to all cruel intensive factory farming methods.

The Chicken Out! campaign, run by Hugh and a number of his River Cottage entourage in Axminster, Devon, began by promoting free range chicken to the local community and trying to get as many people to switch to support better conditions for Britain’s chickens as possible. Hugh took on supermarket giant Tesco, challenging them to meet the standards they set themselves on their website with regard to where they source their produce from, and has been relentlessly campaigning to get them to introduce a minimum standard for their chickens; to sell freedom food chicken instead of broiler house chicken. A fight which is yet to be won, as Tesco maintain that if customers demand broiler house chicken with hockburns and a low quality of life, they will continue to sell their broiler house specials at 2 for £5.

All the good work that has been done by campaign groups and corporations and individuals choosing to switch to free range could end up being in vain however. Compassion in World Farming are still urging people to vote with their shopping baskets and to help support them in the work they do to get more companies to ban caged eggs. This is especially important, they say, considering the ban on caged egg production will only apply to barren battery cages; ‘enriched cages’ will still be permitted. Enriched cages are an improvement on battery cages, providing hens with a nest area, something to shorten their claws on, perch space and litter to scratch around in, however they are obviously unnatural and prevent the hens from exhibiting natural behaviours. This leads to unhappy birds (which don’t lay as well as happy chickens), and can have health implications, and generate boredom and frustration.

In addition, the demand for more free range eggs will be difficult to meet using current farming techniques, if we listen to arguments from Tom Vesey, the chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association. Vesey, who supports the production of all sorts of eggs, believes that although it is good that middle class people can buy free range eggs, not everybody can afford to do so. Supermarkets could help with this, as estimates from CWIF show that on average, it costs 9p more to produce free range eggs than to produce eggs from caged hens, whereas the relative mark-up on the supermarket shelves is 30p difference. It seems a little contradictory that the chairman of an association that focuses on producing free range eggs should take this view.

The BFREPA have also shown their support for changes in regulations in accordance with the familiar lion code that British eggs are stamped with, stating that this is still well below EU standards, which are set at a maximum of 2500 birds per hectare. At the start of the year, the decision was made to approve an increase in the amount of chickens permitted to range per hectare of land from 1000 to 2000 birds; a decision which has not yet received the approval of the RSPCA. Vesey is of the impression that this is a matter that the RSPCA should be making a decision on promptly if they do not want to be left behind by the industry, which, he says, will have to evolve in order to meet the additional demand for eggs if shortages are to be avoided. However the RSPCA is keen to ensure that standards are maintained and that the increased flock densities do not have adverse effects on the health and wellbeing of the birds, and is looking to enlist the help of research from Bristol University in determining this. The RSPCA is also concerned that additional measures and standards are in place to limit the likelihood and spread of disease among flocks, as well ensuring that birds use the space evenly, rather than ending up with concentrated numbers of birds focused in one area.

Changes such as the permitted increase in ranging numbers could potentially undermine the hard work that has been put in to improve on the conditions of Britain’s chickens. Similar concerns were expressed regarding organic farming, as people began to query whether the term was being allowed to be applied too loosely, and whether this would be detrimental to the ideologies central to organic food. If practices such as halving the amount of space free range chickens have continue to be approved and waved through without challenge, this could have a dramatic impact on the credentials and benefits of ‘free range’ as a whole. Essentially, if something isn’t done to keep a check on the situation, we could end up with factory farming methods being relocated from cages to field, and consumers paying their 30p premium to be helping chickens live a healthier happier life that is only half of that which it used to be before free range became the minimum standard.


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