In 2016 the UK is estimated to have consumed over 12.6 billion eggs and the sales value of the 2016/7 UK egg market is estimated to be a staggering £972 million. Over 50% of these eggs were free range, making the production and sale of free range eggs a huge industry (1). Advertising strategies adopted by free-range egg producers and distributors play on a genuine concern with animal welfare as their signature marketing trope. However, conditions on their farms are often very far removed from those presented on the egg boxes.
Welfare Marketing & Profit
In a study conducted into the factors motivating purchase of organic and free range produce in the UK Dr Louise Hassan & Dr Nina Michaelidou demonstrated ‘that environmental and animal welfare reasons explain the high demand for organic produce’. The finding of these studies has interesting implications for the marketing strategies of free-range eggs producers. If demand for free-range eggs is driven by concerns over animal welfare, as shown by Michaelidou and Hassan, it would become in the interests of companies producing these foods to exaggerate the welfare conditions of their animals. Through misleading the consumer into thinking that criteria for animal welfare found in the consumer’s expectations are being met by companies, when in fact they are not, companies can increase demand for their goods from this ethically conscious demographic, maximising sales and profits.
‘environmental and animal welfare reasons explain the high demand for organic produce’ Dr Hassan & Dr Michaelidou
‘Enriched Cage’ Eggs
The spectrum of welfare conditions for laying hens in the UK is hugely varied and can be divided into roughly 4 major categories. Caged (48%), Free-Range (50%), Organic (est 2%) and Barn (2%) (1). Caged hens have by far the lowest standards of animal welfare, being kept in huge sheds often containing tens of thousands of hens, with approx 13 hens being crammed into every m² and confined within cages for 24 hours a day. Enriched cages fail to satisfy hen’s even most basic behavioural and physical needs(2,3). These conditions are obviously deplorable and are a huge cause for concern, to read more about the conditions these animals are kept in Viva and Compassion in World Farming have extremely interesting websites.
Standards for Free-Range hens are improved as hens must be granted continuous daytime access to outdoor runs and kept with a much lower stocking density of 9 birds per m² (4). However, there is a distinct disconnect between the images advertised on egg boxes and in commercials and this reality of life in the chicken sheds. This waitrose advertisement for its Free-Range eggs from 2017 portrays free-range hens as having ample space to roam in an idyllic, dew-kissed field. In reality, multi-tiered free-range hangars such as Friday’s Ltd’s Combwell farm house up to 64,000 hens in a single shed (5). For free-range birds crowded conditions like this can have serious implications for their ability to roam. With inadequate specifications of the amount of exits or ‘pop-holes’ for birds to exit these hangars and high stocking densities many hens never even make it outside (6,7,8,9).
Another significant practice undermining standards of hen welfare on free-range farms, entirely missing from advertising and product labelling is beak trimming. Kept in such highly populated conditions hens can become very territorial and aggressive, injuring and even killing each other. To reduce death and injury’s from these behaviours many farmers ‘trim’ the beaks of checks using an ultra-red beam in a procedure done without anaesthetic (10). The procedure is categorised as a ‘permitted mutilation’ under government legislation (11). Defenders of the procedure argue that the process is quick, being over in moments and that it is crucial to the physical health of the animals.
However, In a study into the agonistic (violent & combative) behaviour amongst hens relative to group Craig et al found a positive correlation between group size and aggressive behaviours, with the highest number of aggressive behaviours occurring in the biggest groups. They found that pecking was most frequent at feeding times in which population density was highest as chickens cluster around food. Craig et al hypothesised from these findings that agonistic behaviours were largely motivated by stress levels and greatly catalysed by overcrowded conditions. Their research offers an interesting perspective on the debate, re framing beak-trimming from a necessary evil of poultry farming in the interests of an animals well-being to a rather brutal violation designed to maximise the number of hens which can be healthily crammed together. Despite all these abuses of animal welfare, free range companies have made over a £400 million industry by convincing people that as long as you buy free-range you don’t have to worry about the welfare of the animals.
Organic egg farming practices are much closer to the way they are portrayed in advertising campaigns. Stocking density is reduced to 6 hens per m², maximum flock size is capped at 3000, pop hole are required to be larger and more numerous the free-range and the practice of Beak-trimming is prohibited. The combination of these improved considerations for animal welfare is a standard of welfare far closer to the myth sold by free-range advertising companies, yet organic sales make up only 2% of those across the country.
‘There seems to be a discrepancy between the images of animal welfare that the companies use when communicating to consumers and the understanding of animal welfare that directs company policies and thus influences the lives of millions of animals every day.’ Sune Borkfelt, 2015. From an essay on a similar phenomenon in the Danish ‘welfare meat’ industry
It is time we had true transparency in the manufacturing processes of our foods. Not just in the egg industry but with all our food, people have a right to know how the food they eat gets to their plates. If we are ever to have real positive reform in the food industry, exaggerations of welfare, or any other standards by it environmental or working conditions, must cease to be tolerated.