Up to 16,000 hens are crammed onto shelves in sheds with the end of their beaks cut off and male chicks gassed at just a DAY old
Gethin Chamberlain, for the Sunday Mirror, 27 March 2016
Thousands of hens are crammed on to shelves, clambering over each other, hardly ever seeing daylight and with their beak ends cut off.
But these are the lucky ones. Others have their beaks trimmed at a day old.
It’s a vision that might explain why so many people opt for free range eggs rather than those from battery farmed hens.
But brace yourself. For these ARE free range hens. Sheds can contain up to nine birds per square metre – like putting 14 people in a one-bed flat.
Many may have their beaks pierced by infra-red laser at a day old and in a fortnight the end will drop off.
It’s to prevent the hens harming each other. A healthy bird makes more profit.
No anaesthetic is used but the UK industry continues to use the method even though many countries are phasing it out.
It used to be worse – a hot knife severed the beak until the laser was introduced.
Yet nothing about these conditions is in breach of EU regulations.
A shedful of 16,000 free range hens must have outdoor space – 10,000 square metres, about one-and-a-half football pitches.
But there are no rules about how often the birds go outside. Many NEVER do because they are so hemmed in.
Now a farmer has broken ranks with other free range egg producers to expose conditions he describes as “the equivalent of high-rise urban living for hens”.
Dan Wood, who runs Blackacre Farm in Somerset, has launched a campaign to expose the reality of factory farming.
He said: “The term ‘free range’ has lost all meaning. It refers to everything from a multi-tier unit to hens in a back garden.
“Consumers have a right to know where food comes from, so our No Multi-Tier Here campaign sets out to ensure everyone is able to make an informed decision.
“As prices have been driven down, many free range farmers embraced multi-tier systems to keep up with consumer demand – and in the process reducing feed consumption and increasing flock numbers. There is a place for multi-tier.
“How else can shops offer free range eggs for 79p for six? We just want to highlight what is happening.”
At his farm, birds are “free to roam on luscious pastures, soaking up daylight, before returning to sleep in single-tier sheds”.
It’s an image many others in the industry play on. But it is often far from reality. More than four billion free range eggs were produced in the UK last year, up from 189 million in 2005.
Around half of the £1billion-worth of eggs sold are free range. Even McDonald’s has phased out battery hens’ eggs in response to customer demand.
Myles Thomas, chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, told industry mag The Ranger that multi-tier sheds are more efficient.
Eggs from his Shropshire farm, TC Thomas & Son, go to Sainsbury’s, ASDA and Aldi. His three multi-tier sheds house 48,000 hens.
Mr Thomas refused to talk to the Sunday Mirror but his association said in a statement: “Regardless of the housing system, the same high welfare standards are applied.
“All birds have access to the range, food, water and space to move around in.”
His vice-chairman, James Baxter, produces Happy Eggs for Noble Foods and uses four multi-tier sheds each housing 16,000 birds at his farm in Stranraer.
He also refused to talk but previously told Farmers Weekly the system meant smaller sheds and lower feed costs while still allowing the hens room to move.
Farmers claim the birds can move between the layers while holes allow access to the range.
But critics say the sheer volume of birds mean many never make it outside.
There are fears hens could suffer further in Government moves to let the poultry industry self-regulate from next month.
Animal rights group PETA slammed conditions.
Director Mimi Bekhechi said: “The ‘free range’ label makes consumers feel better, not animals.
“Male chicks are suffocated or ground up alive and their sisters have beaks cut without pain relief.”
Symbols to look for when choosing your eggs
There are four grades of UK-produced egg and the clue is stamped on the shell.
The symbols are: 0 – organic; 1 – free range; 2 – barn; 3 – enriched cages.
The British Lion symbol means eggs are vaccinated against salmonella.
Organic hens have less-crowded living conditions indoors – up to six per square metre in flocks of no more than 3,000. Routine beak trimming is not permitted.
Free range hens are housed in barns furnished with bedding and perches, with nine allowed per square metre. No limit to flock size. Beak trimming is common.