Battery-farm backlash boosts free-range eggs

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The Independent Online

Shoppers concerned about animal welfare in Britain's £3bn-a-year poultry industry have sent sales of free range and organic chickens and eggs surging.

The National Farmers Union revealed yesterday that purchases of chickens allowed to roam outdoors are rising at 10 times the rate of chickens mass produced in large artificially lit sheds.

Meanwhile sales of more humane free range, organic and barn eggs are rising fast while sales of eggs from battery chickens are falling.

According to a report released by the market analyst Mintel today, sales of eggs produced by the three "kinder" methods increased by 24 per cent between 2002 and 2005 to two billion. Eggs from battery chickens fell by 8 per cent to 2.9 billion over the same period. The figures come a week after the Government published a report showing conditions for Britain's 800 million intensively raised broiler chickens remain poor.

The report for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that deformities were common in many quickly fattened birds, a quarter of whose legs could not support their swollen bodies. Some 94 per cent of the 860 million broiler chickens produced in the UK every year are reared indoors, up to 20,000 a time in large sheds. Five per cent of UK chickens produced for the table are free range and 1 per cent organic.

The NFU said production of free-range chickens had risen by 20 per cent in the past three years while organic chicken production was up by 50 per cent this year alone, compared with a rise for standard broilers of just 4 per cent this year.

Charles Bourns, the chairman of the NFU Poultry Board, said the industry was successfully addressing public anxiety about welfare for "indoor chickens" but he acknowledged that people were "still concerned".

Mintel reported that sales of free-range eggs from hens roaming outdoors increased by 31 per cent in the four years to 2005. It believes animal welfare is the primary motivation for shoppers picking less intensively produced eggs - although battery hens still account for six out of every 10 eggs sold. "The widespread uptake of ethically positioned eggs by both retailers and consumers is testament to the emotive nature of this particular market," said Claire Birks, of Mintel. "People are becoming increasingly concerned about the way animals are reared and more aware of how environment can impact on the flavour of the food.

"As such consumers are increasingly turning their backs on eggs from laying cage hens, which are often housed in poor conditions. In turn they have embraced free-range eggs from hens living in more agreeable surroundings, while organic eggs are seen as healthier, as the hens do not come into contact with chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or hormones."

Mintel found poultry was the fastest growing category of organic meat, with sales increasing by 121 per cent between 2002 and 2004.

But Peter Bradnock, the chief executive of the British Poultry Council, which represents broiler chicken producers, said concerns about animal welfare were actually falling away and described the interest in organic chickens as "not explosive" because it came from such a low base.

"We think the public has a pretty good understanding that we opt for high standards - I think that's evidenced by the fact there is not a strong demand for organic and free-range produce," he said.

How the chickens are kept

Caged-hen eggs

Battery hens are kept in small cages, with each hen having less space than an A4 sheet of paper. Most farms have 4 or 5 birds per cage (20in x 20in) and cages are stacked six high. The hens are unable to perch, scratch or preen and their beaks are cut. They enter the cages as chicks and stay there until slaughtered about a year later.

Barn eggs

Hens are housed in single or multi-tier buildings. They have room to move, litter to bathe in and nest boxes to lay eggs. Hens are able to use perches, with at least 15cm per bird and no more than nine birds per square metre.

Free-range eggs

Similar to the barn system, allowing them to behave naturally and move freely. In addition, the chickens have outside access and no more than 1,000 birds can be kept per acre.

Organic free-range eggs

Usually kept in small units, in small flocks and spend more time outside. Under EU regulations, as many as 9,000 hens can be kept in one shed. But the Soil Association allows flock sizes of no more than 500 birds. All organic chickens must have access to grass. Their diet consists of organic cereals.

Louise Jack