Organic vs. Free-range - what's the difference?
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, whilst up to 47% of them come from free-range hens, 48% are produced by caged birds and the remaining eggs are produced from hens reared in barns.
What makes organic eggs different to free-range?
There are five key differences between organic and free-range standards. Soil Association standards cover housing, the amount of space animals have, the way they are treated, what they are fed and how they are transported and eventually slaughtered.
1. Organic chickens are kept in smaller flocks:
Soil Association organic standards specify a maximum flock size of 2,000 and under EU organic standards it's 3,000 hens. To put this in perspective, there is no maximum flock size under free-range legislation - RSPCA assured standards set a maximum flock size of 16,000 hens, whilst intensively-reared free-range birds are commonly housed in groups of up to 30,000 per shed!
Having fewer birds encourages better outdoor range use and makes it easier to manage bird welfare on an individual level, which helps to ensure the birds are kept to the highest standards of welfare.
2. Truly free range with access to the outdoors:
Organic poultry must have continuous and easy daytime access to an outdoor range covered with suitable vegetation, except in adverse weather conditions. Organic farms certified by the Soil Association also have to provide more pop holes (exits from the hen house) than 'free range' farms do, to encourage and promote ranging.
Range size and quality:
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, 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 other way that Soil Association organic standards differ to any other type of laying hen system, is that certified farmers must give hens access to the outdoors at 12 weeks – a much younger age than free-range systems. 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.
The range itself 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. In contrast, the range in free-range farms only needs to be rested for 2 months.
The outdoor range can provide many behavioural opportunities for hens. It provides a stimulating environment where they can explore, forage for insects, scratch around in the ground, sun bathe and dust bathe.Kate Still, Animal Welfare Specialist - Soil Association Certification
3. Higher standards of animal welfare:
Beak trimming is a practise routinely performed on laying hens in the UK, (including EU organic and free-range systems) that is prohibited under Soil Association standards. It is a mutilation that can be painful, stressful and also prevents the hens from expressing their natural behaviour by foraging. Beak trimming is carried out to reduce the damage a bird can cause to other birds through feather pecking. However, it does not prevent the underlying cause of the behavioural problem which can be solved through changes in management practices.
We believe feather pecking can be solved by providing hens with a stimulating environment which allows birds to satisfy their natural behavioural needs, such as foraging, ground scratching, and dust-bathing.
4. No routine use of antibiotics:
The way we regularly use antibiotics in intensive farming is undermining our ability to help treat infection and disease. 40% of all antibiotics in the UK are given to farm animals and intensively reared pigs & poultry account for 85-95% of UK farm antibiotic use.
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 non-organic and free-range livestock.
5. Organic chickens are fed a GM-free diet:
In the UK alone, over one million tonnes of GM crops are used to feed animals. This is banned by organic standards and organic birds are not fed on GM grain or feed (which is common in free-range and non-organic hens. Outdoor foraging also means that organic chickens get to eat a variety of plants, grubs and insects which adds variety to their diet and helps keep them healthy.
Standards for Soil Association certified organic laying hens have been given the gold standard by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) – the highest of any farming system in the UK. Next time you shop, looking for the logo and choosing organic is one easy way you can make sure you're opting for higher welfare - helping to make a difference to farmers, animals and the environment.
Look for the Logo
Find out where to find, try & buy organicChoose organic
The welfare potential of cage systems is really limited. Hens aren’t able to perform all of the behaviours that come naturally to them, like foraging, scratching, or dust bathing. And these birds never see natural daylight, which is heartbreaking.Kate Still Animal Welfare Specialist, Soil Association