Egg-laying hens reared on organic farms cannot be caged but otherwise the quality of their living conditions varies greatly. In most cases, however, it looks nothing like the marketing or the picture you have in your mind of chickens scratching around in an old-fashioned farmyard.
Just 36 percent of all organic farms provide hens with two square feet per bird or more,1 while half use roofed enclosures with solid floors as their ‘outdoor’ space, meaning these ‘free-ranging’ birds have no access to soil or vegetation at all.2
As for cage-free, there is no standard, country-wide definition of how birds in such a system should be kept, and even ‘cage-free’ does not actually mean cage-free. By California’s definition of the phrase, a bird should be able to stand up, turn around, and spread her wings—but she can still be housed in a cage and isn’t required to have access to the outdoors. This is both extraordinary and deeply misleading.
Any idea that organic and cage-free birds live in small flocks and spend their days dustbathing and scratching in the ground are quickly dispelled by the scale of these farms. This is an industrial business, with tens of thousands of birds spending long hours crammed into sheds, while some of the largest farms have millions of birds.3
Even where birds are permitted outside, this can be little more than a tiny concrete patch of land.4 And the birds don’t have to ever go outside to be classed as organic, they just need to have ‘access’. Because hens are territorial, weaker birds may not cross a stronger bird’s space, and will never get outside. Those who do venture out may be more susceptible to disease because they are the same in-bred strains as those in closed systems and are not hardy enough to cope with bugs in the outside world.5
Male chicks born into the free-range or organic egg industry will be gassed, crushed or minced alive at a day old because they are deemed useless. And when the hens’ productivity declines, being ‘organic’, ‘cage-free’ or ‘free-range’ won’t save them from the slaughterhouse.
Besides, even if organic, cage-free birds lived a blessed life, is it true that anyone only buys organic and cage-free? Do they never buy or consume any products that could be made with eggs, such as cakes, cookies, mayonnaise and pasta? Do they never eat out or have dinner at a friend’s house without checking first the origin of the eggs?
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1 Tom Polansek, ‘U.S. aims to toughen rules on organic egg production’, Reuters, 8 April 2016 [https://af.reuters.com/article/commoditiesNews/idAFL2N17A2AX]
2 Tom Polansek, ‘U.S. aims to toughen rules on organic egg production’, Reuters, 8 April 2016 [https://af.reuters.com/article/commoditiesNews/idAFL2N17A2AX]
4 Kiera Butler, ‘Is your favorite organic egg brand a factory farm in disguise?’, Mother Jones, 4 October 2010