People in the UK can not buy free-range eggs for the time being. As opposed to some of the UK's recent food woes, this is not a supply chain issue, but the result of a “chicken lockdown” and marketing definitions that are controlled by regulations.
“Free-range,” “barn-raised,” “cage-free,” the list goes on. Here’s what all those terms mean (both in the UK and the US) and why the UK is currently having an issue with their so-called “free-range” eggs.
WHy can't you get free-range eggs in the uk?
The UK is currently beak-deep in its largest-ever outbreak of avian influenza with more than 100 cases confirmed across the country since the start of November 2021. In an attempt to contain the virus, farmers have been forced to move all their chickens indoors, meaning they can no longer be defined as “free-range.” Instead, the eggs previously known as free-range will be labeled as "barn eggs," according to the British Egg Industry Council.
In the UK, eggs cannot be described as free-range unless they come from birds that enjoy unlimited access to outdoor pastures during the daytime. Fee-range hens can be housed in barns at night to keep them safe from foxes and other predators, but at a maximum of nine hens per square meter, as per the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Under these regulations, egg farmers are allowed to keep their birds locked up for up to 16-weeks and maintain their free-range status. This is a loophole that's primarily used to cover the event of a transmissible disease outbreak among the poultry. Since the UK's chickens have now been in avian flu "lockdown" for four months, this 16-week "grace period" is now over and the current stock of eggs can not be defined as free-range.
Fear not, the threat of bird flu poses a very low food safety risk to consumers in the UK and doesn’t affect the consumption of poultry or eggs. However, it does mean the eggs no longer fit under the strict regulations that guide how eggs are marketed.
“Marking free-range packs and eggs temporarily as Barn is not only the most practical solution, but it also means consumers can continue to buy eggs from free-range hens, albeit temporarily housed, while farmers can ensure the hens are safe and well,” Mark Williams, Chief Executive of the British Egg Industry Council, said in a statement.
The Difference Between Free-Range and Cage-Free Eggs in the US
Things are a little different in the US. Compared to the UK and the European Union, the US has fairly different (arguably less stringent) regulations on their food and agriculture, including eggs.
According to the USDA, free-range eggs must be produced by hens that are housed in a way that allows access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. However, there’s not much government oversight as to the quality of the external environment.
Another USDA term is “cage-free,” which, simply put, refers to eggs that come from hens that aren’t caged and “freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water.” However, they do not need to have access to outside.
While USDA regulation of this is fairly light, manufacturers in the US can also seek accreditation from private non-governmental organizations to highlight their quality standards to consumers. One of the more rigorous is the Animal Welfare Approved badge, which consists of a white sun with blue rays over a green pasture.
To receive their badge, eggs must be produced by birds that have continuous access to an outdoor area covered by growing vegetation that’s at least 0.4 square meters (4 square feet) per bird. They must also have a set amount of space indoors, while practices such as forced molting through starvation and beak cutting are banned.