Organic vs Free-Range Eggs
Free-range, caged, barn eggs or organic? Egg labelling can be confusing and sometimes it’s hard to know what the difference is. In the UK we consume more than 12 billion eggs a year – only 2% of these are organic, whereas up to 47% of them come from free-range hens, 48% are produced by caged birds and the remaining eggs come hens reared in barns.
Standards have been set for organic and 'free range' eggs which stipulate among other things flock sizes, stocking densities and how many hens can share a nest. Organic standards go further than free range standards in a number of important ways.
- Soil Association organic standards stipulate smaller flock sizes and lower stocking densities (the number of birds per square metre). Max 2,000 vs 16,000 in free range systems.
- Organic farms certified by the Soil Association have to provide more pop holes (exits from the hen house) than 'free range' farms do, to encourage and promote ranging.
- Beak trimming – a mutilation that can be painful and also prevents the hens from expressing their natural behaviour by foraging is severely restricted. The vast majority of UK hens kept in free range systems are routinely beak trimmed.
- Organic chickens are fed a GM free diet. In the UK alone over 1 million tonnes of GM crops are used in the UK to feed animals which includes some free-range chickens.
“The standards for Soil Association certified organic hens centre on our view that the single most important thing we can do for hens is give them a truly free range life” - Kate Still, Farming Advisor (Animal Health & Welfare) in the Producer Support Team at the Soil Association.
More space, happier chickens
Smaller flock sizes encourage better range use and help to ensure healthier and less stressed birds. In larger flocks, chickens are more likely to cluster, limiting the ability of birds to access the popholes and get onto the range area. Keeping flock sizes small makes it easier to manage bird welfare on an individual level, which can help reduce the risk of serious suffering for chickens.
In order to maintain the best possible animal welfare, the Soil Association recommends flock sizes of no more than 500 birds. Where farms can demonstrate high levels of welfare, up to 1,000 meat birds are allowed in a house, or 2,000 for egg laying birds.
Freedom to roam outdoors
Organic farms certified by the Soil Association have to provide more pop holes (exits from the hen house) than 'free range' farms do, to ensure access outside is not restricted.
Soil Association organic standards also require that laying hens have access to a much larger outdoor range than EU organic standards and free-range standards. Under Soil Association standards each hen is allowed a minimum of 10 square metres of space outside, this is compared to 4 square meters for hens reared to EU organic and free range standards. In general, a smaller proportion of birds go outside in larger flocks.
One of the ways the Soil Association organic standards differ to any other type of laying hen system, is that our farmers must give hens access to the outdoors at 12 weeks – much younger age than any other system. Hens are initially fearful of novel environments such as the outdoor range, so by giving them access from an early age, you help to encourage a more free-range life for the hens.
Having access to the outdoors is important, as it gives plenty of natural behavioural opportunities for hens. It provides a stimulating environment where they can explore, forage for insects, scratch around in the ground, dust bathe - all the sorts of things they would naturally do in the wild.
The range where the laying hens roam, must be rested for at least 9 months between flocks to allow vegetation to grow back and prevent the build-up of disease in the soil. The range in free range farms only needs to be rested for 2 months.
Higher standards of animal welfare
Feather pecking is a serious welfare problem for laying hens and occurs when hens peck and pull out feathers of other chickens. It can lead to feather loss, skin damage and even cannibalism and death in severe cases. The cause of feather pecking is multifactorial, but a significant risk factor is diet and environment. In most UK farming systems, birds are routinely beak trimmed at a day old. Beak trimming is carried out to reduce the damage a bird can cause to another bird. It does not prevent the underlying cause of the behavioural problem which can be solved through changes in management practices.
The Soil Association standards prohibit beak trimming because this mutilation can be painful, stressful and also prevents the hens from expressing their natural behaviour by foraging. We believe feather pecking can be solved by providing hens with a stimulating environment which allows birds to satisfy their natural behavioural needs.
No routine use of antibiotics
The way we use antibiotics in intensive farming is undermining their ability to help treat infection and disease. The routine use of antibiotics is banned by organic standards. This means animals can’t be fed them as a preventative measure to stop them getting ill and instead they can only be used to treat animals if they do get ill. Because of the lower stocking densities and higher standards of animal welfare – organic animals need antibiotics far less frequently than their non-organic counter parts.
Organic chickens are fed a GM-free diet. In the UK alone over 1 million tonnes of GM crops are used in the UK to feed animals, which includes some free-range chickens. They are also able to forage naturally outdoors meaning they also get to eat a variety of plants, grubs and insects which adds variety to their diet and helps keep them healthy.
Look for the logo
Standards for Soil Association certified organic laying hens have been given the gold standard by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) – and they are the highest of any farming system in the UK. Choosing organic is one easy way to make sure the eggs you buy comes from hens that have had access to the outdoors, and opting for higher welfare can help make a difference to the farmers, the animals and the environment.
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