Unscrambling the myths behind free range eggs

An eggmobile is a movable chicken house that has nesting boxes, perches and natural ventilation.

How free ranging are the chickens that produce your so-called free-range eggs? Most people imagine chickens roaming around a farmyard laying their eggs in a coop.

With commercial egg production, nothing is further from the truth.

Toni Brockhoven, national chairperson of Beauty Without Cruelty SA, says 23 million laying hens are confined in battery cages around South Africa. They each lay 300-plus eggs a year, equal to seven billion eggs.

Frank Molteno, spokesperson of Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI), says battery chicken farming is continuing in South Africa on a massive scale and there is no legislation regarding what constitutes free-range chickens.

According to Nikki Elliott, founder and director of United Front 4 Animals, a battery cage is a wire box, not much bigger than a shoebox.

“These hens never see the sunlight or breathe fresh air. Extensive research shows that the hens are frustrated and suffer psychological stress from physical harms, including bone weakness and breakage, feather loss, and diseases.

“For every egg you buy, a hen will be forced to endure these conditions for about 18 months before their ability to lay eggs declines; then they are killed.”

Angus McIntosh, a biodynamic farmer who runs Farmer Angus at Spier near Stellenbosch is passionate about animal rights.

“We move our Leghorn hens and broiler chickens every day. We also feed them non-genetically modified (GMO) grain.”

His hens are accommodated in eggmobiles. These movable chicken houses have nesting boxes, perches, natural ventilation and are designed to house laying hens at night to avoid attack by predators such as rooikat. During the day, the eggmobile door is opened for the hens to fly into an open pasture where they preen and perch on food troughs or forage for insect life and earthworms.

Ms Elliott says caged chickens are denied all these natural behaviours. Before they are 10 days old, the ends of their sensitive beaks are seared off with hot blades. They have foot disorders from the wire cages, sores, and injuries from feather-pecking of their cage mates.

Other ailments include osteoporosis, bone fractures and respiratory disease from constant exposure to ammonia fumes and faecal dust.

Ms Brockoven says battery chickens also suffer prolapsed uteruses from being bred to lay eggs at an unnaturally high rate and size.

“The process of making and passing an egg requires so much energy and labour that wild hens lay 10 to 15 eggs per year,” says Ms Brockhoven.

She is also concerned about male chicks being macerated after sexing, which she says is standard egg industry practice worldwide.

Grace de Lange, manager of the farm animal protection unit at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), says battery farming continues, but the unit is working on poultry-welfare standards with the South African Poultry Association, and the South African Bureau of Standards has codes of practice regarding the size requirements for the cages. But it will take time before these standards are finalised.

Ms De Lange says there is no legislation governing free-range chickens. Free-range eggs are defined as: “eggs which are produced by poultry which are not caged and have daily access to an outdoor range area accessible through openings in the side of a barn”.

Louise van der Merwe, of Compassion in World Farming SA, says helping animals is not difficult and time-consuming, or expensive.

“It’s about being informed of the abuse and cruelty animals are subjected to through factory farming. We believe that if people really knew what was happening behind the scenes, they would spend their hard-earned money on products that inflict no unnecessary harm to animals.”

The South African Poultry Association did not respond to questions. However, in a two-part series, the Cage Free Revolution, published in its official mouthpiece, Poultry Bulletin, of March and April 2017 it states, “Egg farmers are advised to make the move to cage-free as no amount of improved management can compensate for the welfare issues inherent in the (battery cage) system.”

And it adds: “Scientific research has demonstrated that conventional cage systems deny birds the opportunity to exhibit a number of key behaviours, which are fundamental to their welfare, resulting in increased levels of frustration, pain and stress. These important behaviours include the opportunity to build a nest, preen, stretch and flap their wings, perch and dust-bathe.”

A year later, Poultry Bulletin tried another tack to encourage egg farmers to become more humane. In its March 2018 issue, titled “Spend a little to lay a lot”, an article states: “Egg farmers are advised that hens in kinder housing systems will produce more eggs,” and that “although it may cost more, at first anyway, to implement new housing systems for commercial layers, there are definite benefits over time in terms of eggs per hen, feed conversion ratios and lower mortality rates”.

The World Organisation for Animal Health, along with many countries around the world including South Africa, endorses and supports The Five Freedoms for Animals.

These are: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.

“At least four of these five freedoms are not fulfilled by the battery cage system,” says Ms Van Der Merwe.