The label ‘free-range’ is widely used to market and sell eggs and other animal products, giving consumers the impression that they’ll be supporting farms where the animals not only spend much of their time outside but are treated humanely. But the term itself has been the subject of an impressive amount of marketing, and what the industry suggests isn’t necessarily true. The fact is that free range animals very often never make it outside; what's more, they are subject to the same mutilations (like debeaking and castration) as their conventionally-raised counterparts, and they are still sent to slaughter at a fraction of their lifespan. (You can also check out our related posts about ‘Red Tractor’ and ‘RSPCA Assured’.)
This page will give you information on different parts of the 'free range' industry, starting with chickens, turkeys and pigs. We will be adding to it as time permits.
FREE RANGE EGGS
A few facts about free range eggs:
Free-range egg-laying hens still begin their lives in hatcheries, and male chicks are killed
As seen in the above video, male and female chicks are separated after hatching as only the female chicks will grow up to lay eggs. These birds have been specially bred not to put on weight but to lay as many eggs as possible; thus male chicks are of no use to the egg industry and are killed on the day of their birth. The most common methods of slaughter are gassing, suffocation (in bin bags or otherwise) or 'maceration'--being ground up alive.
Male chicks inevitably make up a significant number of all hatched eggs, and we can only estimate how many millions are killed this way every year as no one deems their short lives important enough to record.
Free-range egg-laying hens are still generally confined in barns and many birds never get to go outside
The reality for free-range hens is very different to what the adverts tell us. The birds are still closely confined, with little space to peck and scratch at the ground. In the UK, free-range barns have a stocking density of up to nine hens per square metre. (The situation is even more dire for free-range chickens raised for meat; they are packed in at thirteen per square metre. You can read more about them below) Some barns are multi-tiered and can have up to 16,000 birds--hardly what most people imagine when they see the words 'free-range'.
Pop-holes are small exits provided in barns to allow free-range hens to get outside. Most barns don’t have enough—only one is legally required, and as previously mentioned, barns can hold thousands of birds—and the exits are often blocked by dominant hens asserting the pecking order. On average, less than 10 per cent of free-range chickens will be outside at any given time. What’s more, many never go outside at all. Overcrowding in the free-range system leads to the same problems of aggression and feather-pecking that we see in cage and barn systems of egg production. This is caused by frustration and stress as the chickens compete for limited space.
Free-range egg-laying hens are still debeaked and their bodies are manipulated to the point of serious injury
Just like their conventionally-raised counterparts, the majority of free-range hens will have as much of a third of their sensitive beaks cut off at a few days of age.
That isn't the only abuse they suffer: thanks to selective breeding, a high protein diet, and near constant lighting, their bodies are forced to produce more than 300 eggs annually instead of the approximately 20 eggs per year they would lay in the wild. The resulting calcium depletion means that anywhere from 45 to 86% of free range hens suffer at least one broken bone.
Free-range hens are still regarded primarily as ‘egg producing machines’, and are slaughtered as soon as they cease to be profitable.
Egg production peaks when a hen is around one to two years of age. After this point, a hen is no longer productive enough for a farm’s needs and she is killed, usually for low-grade meat—far younger than her natural life span of five to ten years.
The slaughter process is the same as that of any other chicken born into the system. Before they are slaughtered, the birds' heads are meant to be immersed into an electrical stun bath so as to render them unconscious. This isn't always unsuccessful, however--the struggling hens frequently avoid it by lifting their heads up and away, a movement the industry calls 'swan-necking', or their wings dip into the water instead, causing painful electrical shocks but not unconsciousness. This means that they are carried along the conveyer to have their throats cut whilst fully conscious.
Even when the stun bath is successful, it is not always enough: the industry tends to use a lower current than is necessary, as higher currents damage the carcass. Studies have shown that egg-laying hens will recover just 22 seconds--so unless the stun bath has actually caused cardiac arrest, the birds wake up after their necks have been cut, taking anywhere from three to five minutes to die. This means that sometimes, they are still awake when they reach the next step of the slaughter process--the scalding tank, which is meant to loosen their feathers--and they are boiled alive.
Another method of slaughter is gassing, also known as Controlled Atmosphere Stunning. This has become more common in the UK over the past decade, sometimes for the purpose of stunning chickens prior to slaughter and sometimes for killing them outright. The birds are conveyed via their transport crates into a tunnel or a pit, or put into a closed cabinet. However, stunning is not instant, and if the mixture of gasses is not correct, the birds can suffer considerably before finally losing consciousness.
Videos from free range farm investigations below...
FREE RANGE CHICKENS
The standards for free range chickens raised for meat are similar to those for free range egg-laying hens. The birds must be housed in a defined space, with no more than 13 chickens per square metre, as compared to 19 per square metre (or less than an A4 sheet of paper) for conventionally-raised birds. This is only a minor improvement and leaves the birds with very little space; as such, free range chickens can still be debeaked without anaesthetic to reduce the amount of damage they can do to one another while fighting for room.
The rules stipulate that free range chickens should have 'access' to the outdoors for at least half of their lives--or for 28 days, since they are sent to slaughter at eight weeks old. (Conventionally-raised birds are killed at six weeks of age.) As with free range egg-laying hens, the requirement for outdoor access can be addressed with a single pop-hole at the end of a large shed full of thousands of birds. There is no special slaughter for free-range chickens, either; they are subject to the same painful death as any other chicken.
Investigations have proven that free-range standards do not go far enough; for example, when one free-range farm was found to have 16,000 birds crowded inside in various states of severe feather loss, the RSPCA insisted they were not being mistreated
FREE RANGE TURKEYS
One investigation after another has shown that the 'free range' label is similarly deceptive when it comes to turkeys.
For example, in 2019, the Animal Justice Project's secret camera footage at an award-winning free range farm in Northamptonshire saw turkeys and guineafowl struggling and terrified as workers painfully plucked out their feathers immediately after cutting their throats. Among other horrors were fully conscious chickens being put into the scalding tank--a tub of boiling water meant to loosen their feathers--whilst still alive. (This is not an uncommon occurrence for chickens, free range or not: learn more here.)
You can read more about other free range turkey investigations below.
In 2016, Animal Aid went undercover at an RSPCA Assured free range turkey farm and discovered multiple dead birds as well as many live ones with open, infected wounds. The RSPCA defended it, however, stating that it was 'in line with the RSPCA’s welfare standards'. The farm itself, in Norfolk, was run by Bernard Matthews, one of the UK's largest turkey producers.
FREE RANGE PIGS
'Free range' is not a legal term when it comes to pigs, and as such, conditions vary wildly. There is 'outdoor bred' and 'outdoor reared', however. For the first, piglets are born outside to their mothers, who live in individual huts. They stay with her for three or four weeks and then are moved indoors, where conditions can be as crowded, inhumane and unstimulating as any conventional pig farm. 'Outdoor reared' piglets have outdoor access until 10 weeks of age, at which point they too are moved indoors for the second half of their lives to be fattened for slaughter. Under both systems they are still babies; in natural conditions, piglets would stay with their mother until about 17 weeks old. (They can also live to 15 or 20 years of age.) Only 3% of the over 10 million pigs slaughtered in the UK have access to the outdoors for their entire lives.
And like conventionally-raised pigs, the tails of free range pigs can be cut off and teeth clipped--all without anaesthetic.
At least half of the pigs in the UK are killed via CO2 stunning in a gas chamber, an slaughter method which has been compared to being 'burned from the inside out'. This includes free range, outdoor reared and outdoor bred pigs. It is so cruel that 69 animal organisations, including the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, have come out in opposition to the method, as has the government's own expert advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, who in 2003 stated that it was 'not acceptable' and recommended that it be banned within five years. This hasn't happened; in fact, the number of pigs killed via CO2 has gone up.