Are Free Range Eggs Cruelty Free?

Are free range eggs really cruelty free? How are eggs produced. What does free range mean? How do free range eggs compare with battery hen eggs? Why do some people consider eggs to be a cruel food item? What happens to male chicks if roosters are not

You may have switched to eating free range eggs, but are they really cruelty free?

It is generally agreed that true free range eggs are healthier for you than mass produced battery hen eggs. Additionally many people have switched to eating free range eggs rather than battery farm eggs because they are said to be cruelty free, but is this really true?

Battery hen eggs are most definitely produced in an extremely cruel way. The hens are kept cramped into tiny cages (typically three birds per cage) with nothing to do but lay an egg a day and peck at each other. In some cases the cages are so small that not all birds can lay down at the same time. There are other hidden cruelties in battery hen production, which also occur in the free range industry, and shall be addressed later on.

Free Range can be Misleading

Free range doesn't always mean what people think it means. I keep hens. They have a coop which they are shut up in at night – this keeps them safe from predators, and I know where they are. Around the coop is a fenced area with a gate. This keeps them safe from large predators although a weasel could get in. This enclosed area has grass, rocks, and a roosting place, as well it is where I have their water. Unless for some reason they need to be penned I can let them out, which is what I do most days.

free range hens

Authors free range hens and Blackie Sheep

As such my “free range” hens are usually all over my yard, often in the strawberry patch, under the crab apple tree (lots of bugs there), or following the sheep around. They are what most people think of when they think “Free Range”.

In many cases this is not true. Free range does not mean a bird has unlimited access to the outdoors, it may only mean they are not caged in tiny, cramped, cages, and have something to stand on other than wire.

In some cases birds are still caged, in small, open-bottom, pens, that can be moved around in a yard. They have grass under their feet – rather than wire.  In factory farms that claim to be "Free Range" it might only mean that the birds are let out of their cage for a short period of the day, usually into a cement "yard".  To be clear, there is a difference between "free range" and "cage free".

chicken coop

photo source - An alternate Free Range situation

Where is the Cruelty in Real Free Range Eggs?

The cruelty is simple, if you have not figured it out by now. This is the cruelty that exists in both the battery hen situation, and the free range hen situation. Only hens are needed to make eggs.

At the age of day one most birds are sexed, if they are female their beaks are often (not always) cut, so they cannot peck at each other to the extreme, they are vaccinated, and put into brooders to grow, but the male chick's fate is not so pleasant.

In large hatchery operations the male chicks are put onto a conveyor belt where they are ground up to become pet food, or are frozen to become food for animals at zoos.

Only perhaps 1 – 5 % of male chicks are retained to be used as roosters for breeding purposes. Roosters are not generally kept for eating as they develop a strong taste, a few may be “castrated” to become capons, which are often eaten.

Always?

No this is not “always” the case. Some farmers, hobby farmers, and ornamental bird collectors, keep roosters. Anyone who wishes to have chickens to raise “chicks” will require at least one rooster. In general though, far fewer roosters reach maturity than do hens.

Other Cruelty?

Additionally because hens slow down in productivity at the end of their first year (they enter a moult) they are typically killed. This being long before a hen's average lifespan of 6-12 years.

Summary

In no way do I wish to discourage anyone from switching to free range eggs from battery hen eggs. You should! They are healthier and less cruel than battery hen produced eggs. It is simply so you can be aware that most all food sources have some kind of cruelty associated with them.

I strongly encourage people to keep their own “free range” hens where it is legally allowed. If you want chicks, be sure to get a rooster too!

Chicken Fact: Brown eggs are not necessarily from “free range” birds, the color of the shell is related to the breed of the hen, not its diet, nor caging situation.

Further Reading

How to Change Laws in your Area to Allow Backyard Hens

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