The End Of The Egg?

written by Neil Levy
The unavailability of free range eggs should make you rethink your egg buying, if you’re one of the people who prefer them to barn laid. You’re eating eggs from chickens that can be expected to have had worse lives than previously. And the reason chickens are being confined gives you – and everyone else, whether they care about animal welfare or not – an additional reason to rethink buying eggs. The world now appears to be recovering from the last zoonotic virus: we can do without offering viruses the opportunity to spread in the dense environments of the flock and from the animals to the humans that come in contact with them.
As the weather warms, we may see the ban on allow chickens access to the outdoors lifted and free range eggs may once more be available. But avian flu may soon be endemic in wild birds in the UK and across Europe, and free range eggs a thing of the past. Perhaps it is time to join the vegans and stop eating them altogether.
Many people prefer to eat free range eggs on ethical grounds. Vegans tend to see this preference as indefensible, but I think it has more going for it than they usually recognize. The main objection to free range eggs is that the male chicks are ‘euthanized’ within a few hours of hatching. This is usually done by gassing them, but maceration – essentially dropping them into a grinder – is legal and sometimes used in the UK (and is common in other countries). If (and this is a big ‘if’; the answer varies from producer to producer) the life of a free range chicken is high enough in welfare to be satisfactory from its point of view, I doubt the very brief pain, if any, experienced by the male chicks (and by chickens when they stop laying) is sufficient to show that eating free range eggs is indefensible.
But now that the chickens are confined to barns, their lives are less worth living. How much less is difficult to assess: the standards for barn eggs and free range eggs allow considerable variation, and the chickens in the best barns probably have better lives than those in the worst free range systems. Assuming the best producers of their kind, though, free range is better for the chickens: given the choice between being inside and being outside, they will choose the latter when the weather’s inviting.
There are no more free range eggs in the UK. They’re a victim of the pandemic – not COVID, but avian flu. Avian flu is devastating to the poultry industry, most immediately because outbreaks lead to the culling of all the birds. Avian flu can infect humans and has caused multiple deaths over the years; prevention in domestic birds is therefore aimed not only at reducing the costs to producers but also at reducing the risks to human health. Keeping them indoors is aimed at preventing the virus spreading from wild birds to the poultry.