The RSPCA has announced today that it will be increasing the maximum permitted outside range stocking density for free-range hens under the Freedom Food assurance scheme. This decision will help meet the rising demand for British free-range eggs.
In recent years the UK has seen an explosion in the popularity of free-range eggs – thanks in part to many high profile campaigns by animal welfare organisations and celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley –Whittingstall.
Ironically, this increase in demand by consumers has led to fears from the industry that this cannot be fully met by UK producers. If there is a shortfall in British eggs, then experience indicates that overseas produced eggs (which are often produced under lower welfare standards) would be imported to fill the gap.
As the vast majority of free-range laying hen units in the UK are Freedom Food approved, and therefore inspected to RSPCA standards, it was vital that the RSPCA worked towards finding a solution to this situation that was based on both sound science and professional expertise.
The Society has been working positively with the industry since early 2008 in order to make an informed decision; and has undertaken numerous site visits and a wide ranging consultation with industry, producers, research scientists, vets and retailers, to fully consider all aspects of the issue.
"This decision was not taken lightly and we look forward to continuing to work positively with the industry to see this improve the number, and conditions, of laying hens reared to the RSPCA’s free-range standards, " said Alice Clark, senior scientific officer with the RSPCA’s farm animal science department.
"However, this move will not be a simple blanket measure. For such a change to be considered on individual farms, there are also going to be detailed extra requirements* increased enrichment and more provision of natural cover.
"These are aimed at ensuring the land available to the birds is good quality and managed effectively to help safeguard the welfare of the birds," she added.
Unless a producer can fulfil these additional requirements they will not be allowed to increase the range stocking density, stressed the RSPCA.
"From research and experience we know it is the quality of the range that is extremely important to hen welfare," added Alice Clark, "These additional standards, and any subsequent findings from the field and scientific research, will help to make sure the hens are enjoying the range area even further."
This move will not affect the number of hens allowed indoors, or the maximum number of birds allowed per hectare at any one time, when some areas may be fenced off to rest and rotate under good management. The difference will be the amount of land required over the life of the flock, which will rise from 1,000 birds per hectare to 2,000.
The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) welcomed this decision. "We have been working with the RSPCA to reach an outcome, and we are pleased that this move means the industry will be able to meet the increased demand for British free range eggs," said Mark Williams, BEIC Chief Executive.
NFU Chief Poultry Adviser Rob Newbery added, "The expanding market place for free range eggs is a wonderful success story of UK agriculture. The RSPCA’s decision to amend their standards used by Freedom Food, to allow expansion in line with growing demand, is welcomed by the NFU."
"If the industry does not expand now we risk losing our market to imports, of potentially eggs produced to lower standards in the future," he added.