Chicken and turkeys
Intensively reared broiler chickens (reared for their meat) are normally housed in groups of up to 40,000 in large sheds; turkeys in groups of up to 25,000. It now takes intensive broiler chickens half the time - just 41 days - to reach their slaughter weight than it did 30 years ago. Modern breeds of chicken have been developed to put on weight quickly and the rate of growth is often further accelerated by growth-promoting drugs. The rapid growth rates often mean that the birds’ hearts and lungs can’t keep pace with their rapid muscle growth and they suffer from painful skeletal problems. 100,000 birds die each day in UK broiler sheds as a result of heart failure, disease and afflictions caused by intensive methods of production.
On Soil Association organic farms, hens are able to exercise more of their natural behaviour, including ranging freely, scratching, dust-bathing and feeding in grass fields. To enable them to do this, organic chickens have continuous daytime access to pasture and range, except during bad weather. Organic farmers are encouraged to choose slower growing breeds which are well suited to free range systems and growth-promoting drugs are banned.
There is widespread concern about the use of antibiotics in intensive poultry units. Due to the large flocks, disease can spread very quickly. Low doses, given in feed and water, are a form of insurance for the farmer. But long-term, low-dose exposure is far more likely to create resistance to antibiotics - many of which are also used to treat humans. Organic farmers would only use a course of antibiotics to treat a specific problem and to prevent any unnecessary suffering.
Every year 35 million turkeys are bred for the table in Britain. The vast majority are fattened in sheds which contain up to 25,000 birds. Conditions are similar to those in the intensive broiler industry, and the birds suffer from a variety of ailments which stem from overcrowding, a lack of dry litter and aggressive behaviour. They never feel the sun on their back; never roost in trees, as wild turkeys do; never graze outdoors. The breeding flocks fare no better. Modern hybrid turkeys have such heavy breasts that the stags are incapable of serving the hens. Artificial insemination, rather than natural sex, is what keeps these hybrids going.
What is the difference between organic and free range eggs?
Standards have been set for organic and 'free range' which stipulate among other things flock sizes, stocking densities and how many hens can share a nest. Organic standards always state that hens must have access to outside areas; however they also go further than free range standards in a number of important ways.
One of the ways in which organic standards differ from 'free range' is that organic standards stipulate smaller flock sizes and lower stocking densities (the number of birds per square metre). Smaller flock sizes help to ensure healthier and less stressed birds.
Feather pecking is a particular problem on large units and wherever hens are crowded into small spaces. Birds can be seriously injured and even killed as a result. To prevent this, the majority of 'free-range' hens are beak-trimmed – a mutilation that can be painful and also prevents the hens from expressing their natural behaviour by foraging. This practice is heavily restricted by the Soil Association.
Organic farms certified by the Soil Association have to provide more pop holes (exits from the hen house) than 'free range' farms do, to ensure access to pasture is not restricted. Generally speaking, in larger flocks a smaller proportion of birds go outside.
Be careful about misleading labelling - 'farm fresh' or 'country fresh' does not necessarily mean free range.
What is the difference between Soil Association eggs and other organic eggs?
The main differences occur in the sizes of the flocks and the rotation of the land over which the hens can roam. Hens like to dust-bathe, peck and scratch at the earth. If hens are kept in large numbers, the ground can become bare and can sometimes, after a while, harbour potentially harmful diseases. To prevent the birds becoming ill, the ground needs to be rested. The Soil Association states that the land must be rested for nine months, whereas the basic UK standards state that it only needs two months.
In order to maintain the best possible animal welfare, the Soil Association recommends flock sizes of no more than 500 birds. Where farms can demonstrate high levels of welfare, up to 1,000 meat birds are allowed in a house, or 2,000 for egg laying birds. In contrast, non-Soil Association chickens reared to the current EU rules often live in huge flocks - with as many as 9,000 in a single shed – and are then sold as organic.
In smaller flocks the chickens are truly free range. In larger flocks, chickens are more likely to block the doors and this means that many birds may never go outside. Many experts believe that keeping flock sizes small helps to reduce the risk of serious suffering for chickens, caused in part by the birds getting bored and pecking each other's feathers, causing bleeding and even death.