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Egg Production:
Facts That People Should Know

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Free-Range Poultry and Eggs
by Karen Davis, PhD, United Poultry Concerns, Inc.

"The Happy Hen Organic Fertile Brown Eggs" are advertised as satisfying "the demands of today's health conscious consumers." The hens are "free running in a natural setting, and nest and lay eggs in individual hole nests of wheat straw. They're humanely housed in healthy, open-sided housing, for daily sunning-- something Happy Hens really enjoy."

In June of 1992, I visited The Happy Hen, which is part of a family-owned poultry and egg agribusiness called Pleasant View Farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I was driven to a remote contract Amish farmstead in Logantown, PA, where one of the three Happy Hen houses was located. Through the netting at the front of the long barn I saw a sea of chickens' faces looking out, as though they were smashed up against the netting. Inside, the birds were wall to wall--6,8OO chickens with one rooster for every hundred hens. They never set foot outside. They were severely debeaked and their feathers were in terrible condition-- straggly, drab, and worn off. When I commented on how bad the chickens looked, the owner said, "We have a saying: 'The rougher they look, the better they lay.'" He said the fact that each hen lays 20 to 23 dozen (25O) eggs a year proves they're treated well.

A growing number of people are looking to "free range" as a humane alternative to factory farm poultry and eggs. In the United States about 2 per cent of commercially-raised birds fall into this category. "Free range" conveys a positive image of animals living outdoors, as nature intended. Historically, the term range means that in addition to living outside and getting exercise, the animals are able to sustain themselves on the land on which they are living.

Birds raised in the United States for meat--mainly chickens and turkeys--may be sold as "range" if they have USDA certified access to the outdoors. No other criteria, such as vegetation, size of area, number of birds, or space per bird, are comprised in this term as defined by the Food Labeling Division of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reviews and approves labels for federally inspected meat products. A USDA staff member told me, "Places I've visited may have just a gravel yard with no alfalfa or other vegetation. The birds can exercise, but cannot range--that is, sustain themselves."

The amount of exercise most "free-range" birds get, even so, is small. The owner of Rocky the Range Chicken in Oregon told me that his chickens each get two and a half square feet of space, even though, he said, USDA recommends only a foot and a half. The European Union (EU) does not regulate stocking densities for "free-range meat" birds, either. Moy Park, the UK's biggest producer of free-range chickens, stocks 4,000 birds to an acre, ten times the density prescribed by EU law for free-range laying hens and nearly twenty-seven times the traditional free-range density of 15O birds to an acre. All of Moy's birds are female; thus, for every "free-range" hen, a brother is stashed away somewhere in an intensive broiler shed.

With respect to egg production, EU law allows the term "free range" to be used if the hens have access to pasture (range). In reality, this often means that four thousand birds with 25 birds per ten square feet of space (one square metre) are confined in a building with a single small exit accessible only to those birds in the immediate vicinity. The hen house floor may be made entirely of wire, discouraging movement toward the door even more. The "pasture" may be nothing but a fowl sick mud yard saturated with droppings and intestinal coccidia and other parasites, further discouraging the chickens' interest. For free range to work, the land must be kept fresh. Hens spend much of their time close to the house, scratching, dust bathing, and wearing away the grass. A static house and pasture become unsanitary when hundreds or thousands of birds are collected in a small area. A system of rotation is needed.

According to Compassion in World Farming,

"An ideal free range unit is made up of a number of small insulated, movable houses each holding up to 3OO hens with a littered floor. The houses can be moved to fresh ground on the link-arms of the tractor, giving the hens constant access to fresh grass."

While this system is vastly superior ethically and ecologically to the battery cage system and to what is normally promoted as free range in the United States, it does not solve the problem of oversized flocks, or the unnatural isolation of the hens from other sexes and age-groups of their species and from other species. Veterinarian Holly Cheever has described the mutual arrangement that exists between Rafe, her horse, and her Rhode Island Red hen, Aurora:

"She has learned that an excellent source of flies in the summertime is our horse's belly, where flies love to cluster and feed. She squats directly beneath him waiting for a fly to land, and hops up to snatch it with unerring accuracy. Not only does she never miss her target, she doesn't even touch Rafe's sensitive abdomen which would prompt him to kick up at his underbelly, no doubt injuring her in the process."

While this may be free-range on some small family farms, it is not what is meant by the term as it is used commercially in the U.S. to describe free-range egg production. Eggs produced and sold in the United States may be falsely advertised as "range," because, to date, there is no legal or commercial definition of husbandry terms regulating the sale of eggs in this country. The National Supervisor of Shell Eggs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture administers a voluntary program in which producers can use the USDA grade mark if the eggs have been packaged under USDA supervision. The basis of label approval is the Food and Drug Administration's Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which prescribes labeling standards for things such as grade, weight, class, and producer. However, there are no standards governing the term or the claim "range" or similar advertisements on egg cartons, such as "free running," "free roaming," or "free walking." An FDA staff member told me that a Minnesota egg producer uses the term "free walking" to describe uncaged hens on a concrete floor without nest boxes. He said possibly "free- range" claims could be illegal under the Nutrition Labeling Education Act, which provides that nutrition information should be stated in a manner that enables consumers to understand the information in the context of the total daily diet. A question, he said, is whether an "environmental claim," concerning how hens used to produce eggs are housed, could be invoked under this Act.

It is possible also that under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a case could be made that birds are being kept in a way significantly different from what people expect. People expect "free range" to signify birds who spend much or most of their day outdoors with ample space, exercise, sunlight, social life, and at least some sustainable vegetation. However, U.S. producers generally mean that the birds are uncaged and confined indoors on the floor of a building with nest boxes along the walls. Under EU law, such housing goes under different names (e.g. barn, perchery, semi-intensive) depending mainly on the stocking density, which can be as severe as in a battery house minus the bars, as producers will try to stuff as many uncaged birds as they can into the same amount of space as before.

NEST EGGS, marketed by Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) in Chicago, is probably about as "humane" as one is likely to find this country. In return for keeping the hens according to NEST EGGS standards, farmers receive egg cartons, marketing, and promotion. They are advised, but not required, to provide each hen with two square feet of space. The hens are required to live uncaged in a building equipped with nest boxes, perches, deep litter, feeders and drinkers. Farmers are encouraged to provide fresh bales of hay and to sprinkle around some cracked corn, whole oats or calcium grit each day to encourage the hens to scratch and keep the litter in good condition. "Careful" debeaking is permitted. Removing all food from the hens for days and even weeks to manipulate egg production, the standard U.S. commercial practice known as force molting, is prohibited.

Although chickens can live active lives for up to fifteen years, at the end of a year or two, commercial "free-range" hens are hauled away in transport crates the same as battery hens. (Non-commercial family farms generally keep their "girls" two or three more years before replacing the entire flock.) "Spent" fowl, regardless of whether they were caged or free-range, go to the highest bidder, usually a spent fowl slaughter plant or a live poultry market or auction. "The Happy Hen" hens are trucked to live poultry markets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York City where they fetch a dollar per bird compared to 2 to 25 cents per bird at a spent fowl plant.

As egg production always involves the production of "excess" roosters with no commercial value--half the population of chicks hatched are roosters--the brothers of the "free-range" hens are trashed at birth or sold to laboratories, etc., the same as the brothers of battery hens.

A dumpster behind a hatchery for laying hens is filled with dead and dying male chicks who are of no economic value to the egg industry. (Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary)

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