Ethical eggs: organic vs. free range

What do you picture when you hear the words ‘free range’? Bright, spacious hen houses? Small flocks roaming on green pastures? If these are the sort of idyllic images that spring to mind, you’re not alone. Thanks to some well-publicised media campaigns in recent years, many people are now aware of the terrible suffering experienced by caged laying hens. Fewer people understand that free range, whilst better than caging, does not guarantee the highest standard of welfare for hens; nor the healthiest option for ourselves.

chicken1

It is worth understanding the difference between free range and organic. Organic farming isn’t just about avoiding artificial chemicals; it’s a holistic ethos that encompasses a profound respect for our livestock as well as the land. Compassion in World Farming states that organic farms certified by the Soil Association offer the highest standards of animal welfare of any system. Many people choose to buy free range eggs with the best of intentions. However, only buying organic guarantees you a high welfare hen, and eggs that are free from chemical nasties.

Here are some of the ways that organic goes further than free range:

More space, fewer hens
Organic hens get 10m2 of pasture per bird. Inside the houses, a maximum density of 6 birds per m2 is permitted. Flocks can be no larger than 2000, and can be as low as 500.

fieldFree range hens get less than half that amount of pasture per bird (4m2), and pack 50% more hens into the same living space (9 per m2). Their flocks can be any size; a single hangar can contain tens of thousands of hens.

Real freedom to roam
Organic farms must provide plenty of ‘pop holes’ (exits from the hen house) to ensure that their hens have easy and continuous access to the outdoors. The pasture is rested for at least 9 months between flocks to allow vegetatchicken-in-shadowion to grow back and prevent the build-up of disease in the soil.

Free range farms don’t have to provide a specific number of pop holes, and their pasture need only be rested for a meagre 2 months. This can leave free range hens with restricted access to a bare, muddy, parasite-ridden pasture. No wonder many so-called ‘free range’ birds spend little time outside.

No beak-trimming
Beak-trimming is commonplace in free range systems. To prevent stressed birds from pecking each other, the front third of chicks’ beaks are removed using infrared burners – without anaesthetic. The Soil Association strictly forbids this painful and mutilating practice.

No nasty surprises
Free range hens can routinely be fed anti-biotics to pre-empt illness, and are often given GM feeds.

Love your hens!
It seems like a no-brainer to us: happy hens lay better eggs – and eggs that you can feel better about eating. But how can you guarantee that your eggs come from hens that are well cared for?

Labels can be very misleading. Discerning buyers must wade through a sea of carefully crafted language (‘farm fresh’, ‘barn reared’, ‘corn fed’) and bucolic images that bear little relation to the reality of life behind the box. The only way to trust the ethical credentials of your egg is to trust the producer. That’s why Riverford has built close relationships with our organic egg farmers, Jerry Saunders and Duncan Janaway.

Wherevfeeding-chickenser possible, Jerry and Duncan go above and beyond the Soil Association’s already rigorous standards. Their hens have a fantastic quality of life. They live in small flocks, and spend 365 days a year pottering freely on rich pasture. There is grass and clover for them to forage in, trees, shelters, and sand pits for scratching. The hens are encouraged to leave their houses each morning and engage in natural behaviours. They get plenty of human interaction, being checked on and chatted to throughout the day. Everything they’re fed is organic – including some of Riverford’s graded out veg! See these lucky hens for yourself.

counting-eggsMaintaining this high standard takes extra resources. By understanding this, and paying a little more for their eggs, our customers allow Jerry and Duncan to keep taking such good care of their birds. Hens are not machines; it’s not natural for them to produce eggs that are all completely uniform. By accepting mixed boxes that include the smaller eggs laid by younger hens and the larger, paler eggs laid by older ones, our customers prevent waste, and allow the hens to enjoy longer lives.

In return for this, Riverford customers get organic eggs that are tasty as well as trustworthy: fresh, full of flavour, and laid by a hen who couldn’t be happier.

chickens&jerry

Choose organic
Of the 12.2 billion eggs eaten in this country in 2015, only 2% were organic. We need to do better by our hens. For a truly ethical egg, please buy Soil Association-approved organic. Look for the S.A.’s label on the box: they audit every stage of the production process, so you can be confident in the quality of the eggs and the welfare behind them.

Like the sound of our Soil Association-approved organic eggs? Buy your own from our website:
https://www.riverford.co.uk/shop/dairy/mixed-eggs-half-dozen

For Laydilay’s organic mayonnaise made with happy hens’ eggs:
https://www.riverford.co.uk/shop/farm-shop/mayonnaise-250g

To learn more about organic farming, visit the Soil Association:
https://www.soilassociation.org/

…and Compassion in World Farming:
http://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/chickens/egg-laying-hens/higher-welfare/

51 responses to “Ethical eggs: organic vs. free range

  1. After reading Two Caravans/ Strawberry fields by Maryna Lewycka, I never bought into the horror of battery farming again. I’d rather eat less, humanely managed animal products.

    I love eggs and yours taste great! Thanks for defining the difference between free range and organic.

    • @ Cath, I’ve read that book too and its description of the chicken farming turned my stomach. Great book though!

  2. Thanks for letting us in on the difference-that seals it as far as I’m concerned, although I rarely buy others than Riverford. Even my husband can tell the difference in the taste! Now-if you only did duck eggs as well….!

  3. I love the eggs from Riverford, they are as good as the hens my sister keeps.

  4. Patricia Pearson

    I’ve bought organic eggs for quite a few years now. I was acting on instinct. Thank you for this blog: it has confirmed my suspicions.

  5. You’ve opened my eyes to the difference between ‘free range’ and ‘organic’. It’ll always be organic for me from now on. 6 eggs for approximately the price of a coffee. Why wouldn’t you!

  6. I support organic, free range egg producing hens and farmers! Have done for a long time but in the last year or so I’ve switched to buying virtually all my eggs from Riverford because … they are nicer! Yes they cost more but I’m happy to pay more in support of organic farming and I’m pleased to read this article about the hens and their farmers and feel vindicated in my decision.

  7. I have supported organic for animal welfare as well as keeping antibiotics and pesticides out of my system. It is annoying how so many producers manage to twist the good intentions and ‘mis’-label things so that others are fooled into thinking they are more than they are.
    Any chance of you getting organic duck eggs? I used to have a source that no longer supplies them and enjoyed getting a box a month as a treat!

  8. Thank you for this interesting info. I thought I was doing the right thing buying free range mixed sized from a well known supermarket . My next order will include eggs !

  9. What happens to your hens at the end of their productive laying period?

    • I’d be interested in knowing this too.

      • Hi Yvonne and mrs Thomas.
        Another good question and not such an easy subject to answer smoothly. As the article mentions, Riverford customers accepting mixed eggs allows us to keep our hens much older than large scale commercial producers who are under the control of large pack houses and supermarkets who demand brown medium eggs (laid by young hens). Most laying hens are culled after first lay at only around 60 ish weeks old. We dont push the hens as hard and normally let the girls lay on to over 80 weeks and also regularly moult (give hens a rest for 6-8 weeks) and have a second lay. This is very unusual and almost unique to us organically and commercially and again is only possible due to our ‘in house’ system and understanding customers (older hens lay bigger and more varied eggs). Anyway back to the question, we try to do the best for our hens right up to the end, so dont want them packed off in crates to a processing factory at the other side of the country (and pay for the privilege) so, firstly we try to re home as many hens as possible, often over 10 percent, hassle but worth it. We then carry out depopulation ourselves, at night in the dark when the hens are asleep quietly and carefully. Hens are then frozen and the majority taken by our local zoo. Hope this is of assistance. Regards. Jerry. Orchard Organic Farm

        • Sounds as good a system as there’s ever going to be 🙂

          How would I go about rehoming some?

        • Once upon a time it was possible to buy “old layers” which were known as boiling fowl. These could be made into soups, stews and casseroles with a long, slow cooking time, and were both inexpensive and delicious. Would Riverford consider providing boiling fowl, maybe in small numbers at first to see how they sell?

  10. The Hippy Christian Mum

    Lovely post. Lots of interesting info in here. I knew free range hens only had to have a certain amount of roaming time per day to be classed as free range but didn’t know all the other bits mentioned here. I will certainly be buying organic eggs from now on. Lovely video too, put the chicken first! Haha. Great stuff 👍

  11. I love my Riverford eggs from Harry Hodgson. One of the reasons I buy organic dairy and meat is because of my concerns about animal welfare. If I can’t or won’t be vegetarian then I want to know the animal products I eat have had the best welfare standards possible.

  12. Very well written blog hopefully providing a flavour for what we do. Is important also to mention how important our relationship with Riverford and their customers is to us, a truly two way process. So we are always happy to answer questions or for interested people to visit us. Thanks. Jerry http://www.orchardorganicfarm.co.uk

  13. Thank you very much for this really helpful information. I did not understand the difference between organic and free range, and will only buy organic and from Riverford, or a farm I know adheres to humane conditions for hens, in future. How the hens are cared for is incredibly important. Thank you again.

  14. Thank you for explain the difference very interesting would love to be able to afford organic but with four kids it would mean spending 230 pounds a month on eggs alone, not possible on our budget. So we go with free range as its the closest we can get to high welfare on a budget.Would love to buy organic but until somebody comes up with a way to produce the product in such a way that families on a lower budget can afford I can’t see us being able to do this just yet but as soon as we can I will be 🙂

  15. I wondered how you keep the foxes out of the fields where the hens are.

    • Hi Jenny.
      Good question. Not easy as each of our 500 hen flocks have their own house and ‘range’ (field) and because we move them regularly. We use two lines of electric fences however our main protection is making sure we are always there at dusk to shut the hens in and check all is well. Not fool proof but, touch lots of wood, does work!
      Cheers
      Jerry
      Orchard Organic Farm

  16. Great piece. Would it not be better to feed the chickens UK grown organic cereals rather those imported from Kazakhstan or Russia? Why not make similar improvements in feed sourcing as your animal welfare? Thanks

  17. This was a very interesting read for me. It’s great to know your farmers are doing well by their chickens, I wish these practices were more widespread. For me slaughterhouses are a big reason for not eating meat or anomal products so it’s good to know that not everyone uses them. When I have a house with a garden I’d like to look into rehoming some chickens. The sticking point for me as to whether I could eat eggs again is still what happens to male chicks-I know what happens in commercial systems and it is such a shame-can you tell me what happens in yours please?

    • Yes, are the male chicks thrown alive into a mincing/grinding machine?! Good question!

    • Hi Rosi, unfortunately the reality of farming is that the male chicks are euthanized. The culling of male layer hen chicks is not prohibited in Soil Association standards. However, they have been looking into the developments in Germany into determining the sex of fertilised eggs – and are certainly in support of these. The Soil Association are also working with producers who are looking to breed birds that can be used both for meat and for eggs. This not only avoids the need for culling of chicks, but helps to support the use of birds that are not bred for extreme production characteristics – very high meat yield or very large number of eggs – as high production stress is not conducive to good welfare. Both are options we would be very keen to support in the future.

  18. I had an omelette made from Riverford organic eggs for my supper this evening and it tasted delicious. We used to keep hens in our half-acre garden (30 years ago!) and we knew each one of them by name so I understand how these farmers feel about their birds. Cluck, cluck, girls – and thank you for laying such gorgeous eggs!

  19. What put me off for ever was seeing the hens being gathered up by a huge “scavenging” machine that (if they were fortunate enough) trapped them by their necks and flung them onto a conveyor belt. It beggars belief what happened to the less fortunate.

  20. Hello,

    I was wondering what happens to any chicks as I know other farms kill the chicks?

    • Hi Alice, unfortunately the reality of farming is that the male chicks are euthanized. The culling of male layer hen chicks is not prohibited in Soil Association standards. However, they have been looking into the developments in Germany into determining the sex of fertilised eggs – and are certainly in support of these. The Soil Association are also working with producers who are looking to breed birds that can be used both for meat and for eggs. This not only avoids the need for culling of chicks, but helps to support the use of birds that are not bred for extreme production characteristics – very high meat yield or very large number of eggs – as high production stress is not conducive to good welfare. Both are options we would be very keen to support in the future.

  21. Ethical, Really ??

    How can even organic eggs be called “ethical” as long as there are the male chicks being shredded ?? While the above report is very informing unfortunately it doesn’t mention the millions of killed male chicks ! if anyone feels the need to eat eggs it should not below organic but still more needs to be done to avoid this vast waste of life !!!

  22. How is this considered ethical?

    Ethical by the dictionary: adhering to ethical and moral principles; “it seems ethical and right”; “followed the only honourable course of action” I don’t see how you are doing that.

    “We then carry out depopulation ourselves, at night in the dark when the hens are asleep quietly and carefully. Hens are then frozen and the majority taken by our local zoo. ” How nobel of you Riverford. Isn’t this tragic?

    The state of the Planet is a reflection of our consciousness. Our Planet and everything in it is in the verge of extinction. Humanity could not sink any lower, it’s total insanity. We should be living by a simple principle: “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” Do you know why? Because they will, and they already are! They are depopulating the planet with chemtrails, vaccines, water, GMO’s, and so much more.

    Chickens fed with pellets with the 3 biggest allergens (SOY, WHEAT , CORN) to force them to lay eggs. How’s that ethical? Not to mention diet. That’s abuse. My parents had a farm with chickens when I was a kid, and chickens were never fed pellets, never. They layed the most beautiful tastier country ethical eggs that I have ever tasted. We just did not eat eggs everyday with everything as people do today. This Riverford eggs sometimes make me sick. Most of the eggs have a bit of blood in them too. I always through away eggs with blood. Of course, they are forced to lay them, they will come with blood more often than not. I can’t bare to imagine how I would feel if, as a woman, I was forced to lay eggs every day… I would be dead. But that’s what happens to the chickens too. They have very short lives. Are they happy chickens? I don’t think so.

    How about the Amazon rain forests and communities? The Amazon sustains one of the richest concentrations of plant and animal biological diversity in the world. The biggest threat to Amazon rainforests and communities is industrial SOY plantations. Soy monocultures destroy tropical ecosystems, accelerate climate change, and cause human rights abuses primarily to produce agrofuel and livestock feed. This is the lungs of our Planet we are talking about, for God sake! We’re destroying the lungs of our Planet for the privilege of eating eggs, chickens, cows…? Insane.

    We can, and we should, do so much better than this. We have to, if we want to survive.

    • Hi Ana, we’re sorry to hear you find this blog misleading. Unfortunately, the reality of farming is that the male chicks are euthanized. The culling of male layer hen chicks is not prohibited in Soil Association standards. We understand why many people might feel strongly about the issue, and as a result may choose not to buy eggs. We are confident that the life our chickens have is of the highest standard available on the market.

      • Ana makes a good point about Soya use which you did not respond to. The Use of imported Kazakh wheat also has led to the destruction of virgin Steppe. Grassland it may be but it is still a primary ecosystem. Why not do more to buy your feeds from the UK?

    • Sorry but how can you “force” a hen to lay an egg? The blood drops are there for a variety of reasons, for example the bird had a fright whilst producing it, like running into the electric fence (foxes) or seeing a predator outside. I keep exbats in the back garden, no forcing and even so there is the occasional blood spot.
      Btw can you recommend a way to feed my hens without pellets, soy and corn? And organic. The only source I found of suitable feed was selling in 100kg minimum quantities (and it wasn’t even organic) and I have only half a dozen hens. Thanks for your help.

  23. Having read all the posted blogs I am saddened by the possibility that if the male chick situation is intollerable, do the same protesters understand about what happens to the male baby calves in dairy herds? Limited Rose Veal is trying to give these otherwise condemned boys a decent amount of ‘life’ but there is so little understanding of what really our food growing industry has to face. We are too greedy, we waste too much and we do not use what we have efficiently (including our valuable time).

    Eat less, waste less, not find cheap easy (disposable) alternatives. Consider a biological holistic approach to what you consume and your health. I am poor, I struggle every week to provide basics, however on occasion my two young children and I enjoy meat, fish and dairy, a lot less than other families in frequency and portion size but we value it more for every mouthful. Value down to the last grain and bean what you eat, that way everything is truly appreciated. I am a sentimental non practising vegetarian, I grow what I can and cook everything from scratch (less time in front of the TV and in bed asleep!). But worth it. I look forward to the time when I am able to keep some hens again.

  24. Josef Davies-Coates

    Useful article, thanks. Re “male chicks are euthanized” – could you please elaborate on how exactly this is done on the farms that supply Riverford? Thanks again.

    • HI Josef, the common method in the UK using a macerator. Although this sounds horrid, it’s a humane method of killing chicks; the chicks die instantaneously. If you want to read more about the process, please see this report by the Humane Slaughter Association, a charity ‘committed exclusively to the welfare of animals in markets, during transport and to the point of slaughter’ http://www.hsa.org.uk/downloads/technical-notes/TN9-mechanical-destruction.pdf

      • Josef Davies-Coates

        OK, thanks for the info. And what normally happens to the output of such processes? I’m assuming it become feed stock or similar but would like to know more. Thanks in advance for info about this.

        • Hi Josef, I’m trying to get some more information for you on this. It is used, but at the moment I can’t clarify what for as we’re unsure what our farmers do. We’ll try and update you very soon.

  25. Thank you for the response re. male chicks. This is the sticking point that stops me from eating even the highest welfare produced eggs. Thank you for your honesty. I appreciate what the standards say, but cannot, especially having seen footage of macerators in action, think of this as an ethical way to euthanise. It was really heartbreaking to watch and upset me greatly. In response to another comment above, yes I do know about the fate of male calves and I don’t eat meat or consume dairy products because I am aware of all of this. I do take heart that some people are trying their best within the industry to improve the treatment of animals kept for food, and hope that this trend will continue and snowball.

  26. Thanks for that, I’m never going to buy any more of those horrible free range eggs now from those nasty farmers who aren’t organic. Thanks for saving me from making such a dreadful mistake.

  27. Poor girls being used and then culled when they don’t lay anymore… Such a sad world 🙁

  28. Ethical eggs: organic vs. free range

    Im so happy that i read this blog, its almost like the free range producer are riding along on the backs of the organic range egg producers . like go to the super market and see eggs for sale as Organic only to have free range marked on the boxes, time this was stopped and mark down in price the free range product.

  29. I’m doing my dissertation about ‘ethical’ eating and people’s understanding of the labelling and terms.
    I was wondering what the differences are between Soil Association organic and EU organic? I think one of the main problems is consumer understanding and through my research the differences between certifications aren’t very transparent.

  30. I take imuno suppressing medication and my one worry about organic eggs is salmonella. Do organic eggs still get vaccinated? Or how do they control it without?
    I know the alternative is to boil/cook them to death, but a runny yoke is one of life’s little pleasures!

    • jerry saunders

      Hi
      Thanks for the message. You are right, we don’t vaccinate for Salmonella for various reasons. There are many strains of salmonella many of which are present in low levels around us all the time. The problem with a vaccine is it is for only specific strains and in using it you are actually introducing thore strains into the flock. Vacancies are often more of a comfort blanket approach. Our hens and eggs are subject to a regular programme of salmonella testing but the best preventions are: healthy happy hens, low stocking densities, high hygiene regimes, moving hens and houses onto clean fresh pasture, careful egg freshness and cleanliness systems etc.. Personally I believe the benefits of good quality eggs in a diet would outway the risk, but maybe cooking through is a good precaution in your case?
      Hope this is of assistance
      Good luck with beating the need for the medicine.
      Cheers
      Jerry

      • Hi Jerry
        Thank you for your prompt and informative reply. It is a fine line I agree, and definitely agree regarding the superior quality. You have given me food for thought, pardon the pun 🙂
        Thanks
        Caroline

  31. Anything what was once born, will one day die. Sooner or later but certainly, is a fact.
    The next fact that everything living on this Earth was born to feed something else. The foxes sometimes eat my beloved chickens, mostly my fault, I admit, but sometimes they are just more cunning and daring than I anticipate (fencing, locking, foxproof shelter). Birds of prey eat other birds (not my hens yet but might happen). The World is just organised in this cruel way. We are food too, for lions or for each other, a practice mostly frowned upon nowadays, but did happen in less resourceful times.

    So after these facts why it is a crime that otherwise commercially non-viable male birds (btw we ate our 5 months old cockerels when we raised chicks) become food for other animals??? The companies producing our food must be commercially viable or they go bankrupt. Of course you can chose not to buy their produce, what happens to those families?

    I truly admire real vegans who do not have carnivorous pets, wear only vegetarian or man-made clothing and never uses any transport more compicated than a bicycle, doesn’t use electricity (even windfarms are killing birds) and so on, but anything else is just hypocrisy.

  32. Jayne Crampton-Walker

    Great insight & information. Thank you Riverford!
    #organicalltheway

  33. Thanks for clarifying the difference!
    I’ve always wanted to keep a couple of hens at home in my garden but am nervous about the commitment and care.
    Any advice?

  34. I really miss a treat from my childhood – a boiling fowl. An essential ingredient for Poule au pot, and an amazing flavour. What happens to your chickens after they are no more use as layers? Could I please have one in my box to try?

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