A loophole in UK law means that chickens currently being sold for meat can be labeled as free range, despite the fact that the bird may never have stepped outside.
Since November, all of the UK’s farmed chickens have been kept inside as the meat and egg industries grapple with one of the biggest-ever outbreaks of avian flu in the country.
According to the official UK Government website, so far, there have been 96 confirmed cases of the potentially fatal “highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1” in England. Two have been recorded in Wales and two in Scotland.
According to UK law, when an egg-laying hen is kept inside for more than 16 weeks, it loses its free-range status. This means that currently, no eggs sold in the UK can be labeled as free-range, and are instead being marketed as “barn eggs.”
In the meat industry, the rule is that chickens can be kept inside for 12 weeks before losing the free range label. But chickens slaughtered for meat are often killed at eight weeks.
This means they can technically be advertised as free range, since they haven’t lived long enough to be considered otherwise.
Compassion in World Farming’s chief policy adviser Peter Stevenson told the Guardian: “It’s a terrible situation for farmers, but if a free-range chicken has never been allowed outdoors in its life that should be made clear to consumers.”
Does free-range equal ethical treatment?
The bird flu risk in the UK has now dropped down to “medium” from “high,” and this means that from early May, birds not in protected zones can be let outside again.
But free range doesn’t necessarily equal high standards of animal welfare. Birds kept in multi-tier sheds, for example, can still be deemed free range if they have some outside access, even though they are crammed in with thousands of other birds.
In the UK, roughly one billion chickens are factory farmed every year. Broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) are often bred to grow unnaturally fast. This puts a significant strain on their limbs and organs and often leads to serious health problems.
Free range or not, egg-laying or broiler, chickens often suffer immensely in factory farm conditions.
In 2017, British journalist and self-confessed animal liberationist Chas Newkey-Burden wrote for the Guardian: “Of all [the industry’s] cons, the “free-range” egg is perhaps the most audacious.”
“You’d need Disney-level imagination to believe the UK can produce more than 10 billion eggs each year without inconveniencing any chickens.”