What’s Wrong With Free-Range Eggs?

egg-laying hen

Explaining veganism to people can be tricky. Generally, people seem to have got the hang of vegetarianism; it’s obvious that in order to make bacon, a pig has to die, there’s no getting around that fact. But when it comes to eggs, many are baffled; “surely it doesn’t hurt the chickens to take their eggs?” “as long as the chickens are treated well there’s no problem, right?”. Most egg-eating people I’ve spoken to say they only buy free-range eggs. I’m guessing my circle of friends must be poorly representative of the UK at large because recent figures from the UK egg industry state that only 50% of eggs consumed in the UK in 2016 were free-range (48% were from caged hens and 2% were from birds reared in barn systems) [1]. It could also be the case that many people who buy boxes of free-range whole eggs from the supermarket do not think to check the origins of eggs in things like store-bought cakes, or in dishes served to them in restaurants.

Caged Hens

“Hang on”, I hear you cry, “weren’t battery cages banned in the EU in 2012?” The answer is yes, standard battery cages (also called non-enriched cages) are currently illegal in the EU [2]. However, so-called “enriched cages” are still allowed and are used widely (see figures for UK above). Although these cages provide a small amount of extra space compared to standard battery cages, and provide a perch and dust-bathing area, they have still been condemned as unacceptable in a joint statement released by several international animal welfare organisations, including the RSPCA and the Humane Society of the United States [3].

Free-range Hens

Despite the fact that around half of the eggs eaten in the UK do not come from free-range hens, I’d say the majority of people would agree that free-range is the most ethical choice if you’re going to buy eggs. This may be true when compared to the alternatives, but the free-range egg industry is certainly not free from questionable ethics. Firstly, the idea that chickens are not killed to produce eggs is untrue; even free-range systems buy their chicks from commercial hatcheries, where all male chicks are killed at 1-day old [4]. Male chicks obviously cannot produce eggs, so they are either killed by gassing or something called instantaneous mechanical destruction (IMD), which is achieved by feeding live chicks into machines which have rapidly rotating rollers or blades so that the chick’s bodies are instantly crushed or chopped up. The Humane Slaughter Association stresses that the IMD is humane; if the machines are working properly then chicks should be killed instantaneously [5]. It is estimated that around 6 billion male chicks are killed every year as by-products of the global egg industry. When hens reach about 60- 70 weeks of age their egg production starts to decline, this period is known as “end of lay”. At around 72 weeks of age most hens are sent to slaughter because their egg production rate has dropped to a level where it is no longer economically viable to keep them alive. Even if all these birds, both male chicks and “spent” hens, were killed in a way which completely avoided pain and stress, the egg industry is still treating these sentient creatures as commodities; their lives are only worth as much as their economic value. It can be assumed that most people who buy eggs in the supermarket do not need to eat eggs to survive, and eggs are not necessary to maintain a healthy diet. With this in mind it can be concluded that millions of birds are being killed just because people enjoy eating eggs. Even if you are someone who thinks that as long as an animal is happy before they die the act of killing is justified, free-range farming may still raise some ethical problems. Hens with access to a free-range area may not use it if it is unsuitable, for example, if there is not enough cover in the form of trees or shelters (it is likely that birds feel too exposed to predators in open areas). Studies have found that some free-range systems in the UK have outdoor areas that 20% or less of the flock actually use, even on fair weather days, and this is associated with problems such as increased feather pecking [6]. Feather pecking is a serious welfare concern, and to reduce its prevalence many free-range hens have the tips of their beaks cut off when they are chicks [7]. Most commercial laying hens, free-range or otherwise, are high egg yielding breeds (e.g. white leghorn), which can lay over 300 eggs per year. Laying so many eggs every year takes a toll on the hens’ bodies, and increases risk of osteoporosis, which can lead to painful fractures and limb deformities [8].

So, is there any way of buying eggs with a clear conscience?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question for you, as it is very much down to what you find acceptable. Personally, I think that any box of eggs I pick up in a shop is likely to be associated with some degree of harm or suffering; whether it be the death of male chicks at the hatchery or poor conditions on farm. I don’t think my enjoyment of omelettes is worth any amount of suffering on behalf of another being. Thankfully, there are alternative vegan recipes to all your favourite dishes that usually involve eggs. I’ve made vegan omelette, carbonara, quiche, and egg mayo and cress sandwiches. All of these dishes have been tried and approved by meat-eaters (one even said the quiche was the best they’d ever tasted!). Savoury dishes like the ones mentioned benefit from a great “secret ingredient”; Black salt (also known as kala namak), which has a distinctive “eggy” taste. For egg-substitutes that can be used in baking, see the handy graphic below. There’s even such thing as vegan meringue, which can be made by whipping up the excess water from a can of chickpeas or white beans (this substance is known as aquafaba, not only does it whip up just like egg whites, but it’s also super cheap since you’d normally just drain it down the sink!). Since turning vegan I’ve really enjoyed exploring all these alternatives, and with so many vegan bloggers and chefs out there there’s almost endless recipes to try! Why not give some of them a go?


[1] British egg industry website “Egg Info” – accessed 05/05/2017 (link) [2] Council Directive 1999/74/EC (July 1999) – accessed 05/05/2017 (link) [3] Compassion in World Farming website: Enriched cages condemned- accessed 05/05/2017 (link) [4] RSPCA website: What happens with male chicks in the egg industry (link) [5] Humane Slaughter Association technical notes on instantaneous mechanical destruction (link) [6] Nicol, C.J., Poetzsch, C., Lewis, K. & Green, L.E. (2003) Matched concurrent case-control study of risk factors for feather pecking in hens on free-range commercial farms in the UK. British Poultry Science 44: 515-523. (link) [7] Soil Association Information Sheet: Welfare standards for organic and ‘free-range’ chickens and eggs.- accessed 05/05/2017 (link) [8] Webster A.B. (2004) Welfare implications of avian osteoporosis. Poultry Science 83: 184-192. (link)

(Photo Credit: Care2.com | Infographic: SAS)