Free Range Eggs: Are they all they’re cracked up to be?

Muriel Eggs, Ethics Leave a Comment

At Vegilicious, we try to keep our activism positive, food-focused and practical. However, there is a dark side to the food industry that we cannot simply ignore. This blog post investigates the egg industry in South Africa, and the results are not pretty. What we learnt in this investigation changed our minds about “free range”, “back-yard”, “happy” hens. Maybe it will change yours too.

A few years ago, I decided to find out what the deal was with local, small-scale, free range, organic egg farms in Cape Town. I had stopped eating commercial eggs when I learnt about the horrors of factory farmed chickens, but I had thought: surely on a smaller scale the hens could be treated humanely. The question I wanted to answer was: Are there ethical eggs available in Cape Town? Could we in good conscience eat eggs from a small farm or backyard, assuming those hens were truly free-range?

When I investigated dairy production, I discovered that one of the problems across all scales was what happens to the males, and what happens to the cows when their milk production slows. The egg industry, I realised, is similar in this respect. The females are useful (for their reproductive biology) – but the males… not so much. So, these were the questions I had for local producers:

  1. Where do they source their laying hens?
  2. What do they do with the hens when their egg production inevitably declines?
  3. What happens to the male chicks (the siblings of the layers)?

These questions had been bugging me for some time . For those who aren’t familiar with it, here’s the logic:

  1. Laying hens have to come from somewhere.
  2. For any species, there’ll be some expected ratio of females to males for babies born – for chickens, it’s about 1:1.
  3. So, for every laying hen (female) there’ll be ~1 male chick that had to have been born.
  4. Since there is a big difference in the size of laying hens (skinny, built to be egg-machines) and broilers (built to get very heavy, very fast) – male chicks born in the egg industry have the same skinny build as their sisters and are therefore of no use to the meat industry.
  5. These male chicks are discarded.

While I had heard the usual horror stories from factory farms, I wanted to know for sure what the truth was about small-scale producers, especially those using terms like “free range”.

Free range myth

Free range reality

So, I emailed a bunch of local supermarkets and egg producers, including big brands and small “local is lekker” brands, asking them the above three questions about the source of the laying hens,their inevitable fate, and that of their brothers.

While a number of companies never replied, quite a few did, and I was surprised to hear the exact same story from all of them. Every single one sourced their laying hens from a company called Nulaid. Nulaid is one of a number of brands that stocks eggs in major supermarket chains. In fact, they’re the largest egg producer in South Africa (producing over 800 million eggs per year), and it turns out, they also produce hatchlings that are sold to other egg producers.

As regards my second question (about the disposal of “spent” laying hens) – most companies that got back to me simply said that they sell the live birds to the local community (for the pot, presumably).

Since most companies weren’t able to answer my last question (what happens to the male chicks) – the obvious next step was to ask Nulaid themselves what their practices were, regarding male chicks. The company’s general manager (in charge of all Nulaid facilities country-wide) responded, and suggested: “log onto the and follow the links and you will find the information you are making enquiries about.” He noted that the husbandry practices outlined on that website were “standard throughout the industry.”

According to their website, the South African Poultry Association is“a representative organisation that seeks to promote and advance all matters that will lead towards the improvement of the poultry and all poultry-related industries in South Africa.”

The site links to three documents that are of interest, when it comes to industry standards for the treatment of chickens:

  1. SAPA Code of Practice (2012): Breeders and Day Old Chick Production
  2. SAPA Code of Practice (2012): Broiler Production (i.e. meat chickens)
  3. SAPA Code of Practice (2012): Pullet Rearing and Table Egg Production (i.e. laying hens)

This is where things get grisly.

According to the first of these, there are three acceptable ways to dispose of male chicks.

  1. “Decapitation or cervical dislocation of individual chicks”
  2. “Gassing of chicks with carbon dioxide or gas mixtures with argon”
  3. “High speed maceration of chicks”

The process goes like this: A conveyor belt of fluffy, chirping, newly-hatched chicks winds through a factory. Along the belt are a line of professional chick-sexers, whose job it is to turn the chicks upside down and determine whether they are male or female. The almost imperceptible anatomical difference determines whether they go to the laying facility or… to their death, on the day they were hatched, by one of the above methods: their heads are pulled off, or their backs broken, or gassed in chambers, or they are ground up alive.

For every “happy hen” in a “free range” yard, there was a male chick that was once violently disposed of because it was of no practical use to us humans. The reality that I had discovered was a world of horror – and it became clear why these companies go to great lengths, and spend a small fortune on marketing and PR. They need to paint a pretty picture for consumers to hide the cruelty they commit on this unimaginable scale. According to the South African Poultry Association, 24 million male chicks are “disposed of” every year in South Africa alone…

Since I’m loathe to leave you with such a sad picture – I’ll end with this: YOU can make a difference. With a change in demand, comes a change in production – and the change is already happening globally. The global egg industry is already seeing a fall in egg sales due to the rise of alternative products.

Check out more ethical (and healthier) alternatives to eggs: scrambled tofu, vegan omelettes, chickpea water (aquafaba) or Orgran No-Egg for baking, french toast, meringues, and loads more… Google is your friend!




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