Free Range Only: Putting Our Eggs in One Basket


At last, an endangered species that deserves to be – the battery hen.

Free range eggs may be significantly more expensive, but that’s not stopping shoppers plucking them from the shelves while turning their noses up at caged hen eggs.

This is yet another example of how ethical consumerism rules the roost in today’s marketplace (okay, enough with the chicken puns). Thanks to the hard work of people like British TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the patrons of the Battery Hen Welfare Trust, the appalling living conditions of caged hens is now common knowledge. The more the word gets out, the more unacceptable battery farming becomes. About time, too.

The Guardian reported May 15th that according to a leading market research firm, the number of free range eggs sold annually is likely to top 2 billion by the end of the year. This is largely thanks to the admirable stances adopted by major UK retailers including Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, all of which have been have been officially labeled Good Eggs. They refuse to sell intensively produced eggs on principle, even bringing their phasing-out schedule forward to meet changing demand.

But all this raises an important question – can we really trust the free range label?

In the U.S., there’s no legal definition of a “free range egg” with obvious consequences. In the UK the legal ground is a lot firmer with the DEFRA Laying Hens Code (pdf), but this doesn’t always translate to what we might personally define as “free”. By both European and UK law, a free range chicken is one that has open-air access for at least half its life. And the rest of the time? There’s the worry. If you want a clearer conscience and a tastier omelet, keep an eye out for pastured eggs.

Free range eggs are the CFLs of the chicken world – a step in the right direction. For now, it’s good to know that chickens can finally see daylight, but it’s up to us as consumers to demand continued progress from our agricultural and political leaders if we’re to see truly sustainable, ethical living conditions for the animals we choose to raise for food.

Image: woodleywonderworks (and here’s why chicken eggs are different colors).

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.