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Where Have All The Free-Range Eggs Gone?

You may have started to notice that the eggs on your supermarket shelf are no longer labelled as free-range. So why is this and where have all the free-range eggs gone? RSPCA laying hen welfare expert, Kate Norman explains what has happened to free-range eggs and what this means for hen welfare in the UK.

From Wednesday 1 February, eggs laid and sold in Britain with the Lion Code can no longer be labelled as free-range or free-range organic. This is due to the recent outbreak of bird flu (also known as avian influenza or AI) leading to a temporary change in the way free-range hens are being raised.

To prevent the spread of the virus, free-range hens can no longer have access to the outside. But rest assured, whether free-range, organic or barn, RSPCA Assured eggs are always higher welfare.

These changes to egg labelling are due to the nationwide housing order which was brought in for all birds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at the end of last year.

Egg Marketing Standards Regulations state that free-range laying hens can be kept inside for up to 16 weeks when necessary and their eggs still be labelled free-range during this time. This period came to an end on 1 February*, meaning all Lion Code eggs from free-range birds being kept inside must now be labelled as ‘barn’.

Avian influenza is a highly contagious virus that affects birds, including chickens, and results in high mortality. Outbreaks can have devastating effects on poultry farms which is why governments around the world are insisting that birds are temporarily kept inside.

Public Concern For Free-Range Hens

Google searches for ‘free-range’ increased by 809% from January to March last year which was the last time eggs could no longer be labelled free-range due to bird flu and hens being housed indoors. This tells us that people really care about this issue and are actively looking for more information.

How Will Birds That Are Used to Roaming Around Outside Cope With Being Kept Indoors?

Luckily for the hens, despite this change in the way they are being raised, their welfare remains a top priority for farmers, especially those producing eggs carrying the RSPCA Assured label. RSPCA Assured certified barns provide a safe and comfortable environment for the hens with ample space to move around, forage in and express their natural behaviour. They are also provided with raised perches and plenty of enrichment objects like dangling CDs and vegetables to peck at and interact with.

How Long Will The Hens Be Kept Inside For?

It is important to note that this change is temporary and as soon as it is safe the birds will be able to venture back outside. In the meantime, all free-range eggs will be labelled as ‘barn’ eggs. This allows the public to make informed decisions about the eggs they buy and by choosing ones carrying the RSPCA Assured label, they can be sure the hens have never been caged and have been cared for to the RSPCA’s higher welfare standards.

* 1 February is 16 weeks from the housing order being put in place in East Anglia, however, to avoid confusion this has been extended by Lion Code to the whole of the UK. The official derogation for England ends on 27 February and 17 March for Wales - however, any eggs that have the Lion Code stamp (the vast majority) will be labelled as 'barn' from 1 February.

About the author

Kate Norman

Kate is the RSPCA’s laying hen welfare expert.

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