chicken and chicksWhen my internet connection failed a few months ago, I spent a long time on the phone with some very polite call-centre staff trying unsuccessfully to fix it. They finally agreed to send an engineer who turned out to be a keen vegetarian cook. He chatted happily whilst checking all manner of black boxes and told me about a visit to a free-range hen farm. What he described was a setting that bore no relation to the image I had of paddocks of pecking hens. There were barns the size of aircraft hangers and thousands of birds in a single flock, stressed from living in alien conditions.

The scale of things was not too much of a surprise but the realisation that  free-range means only that hens need have “access” to outside space was. On top of this, he explained that “access” is via small openings the size of a piece of paper, so even if the hens at the barn perimeter could feel the invitation of fresh air it was unlikely, as they are divorced from their natural behaviour, that any of them would lead an exodus.

Of course, there are farms of happy hens where free-range does mean fresh air and scratching in the dirt, but there is a sinister sense of double-speak about farming regulations and I feel I’ve been naive in my egg-buying years. There are vegan alternatives I am discovering depending on whether you need it for binding or leavening, so here I am in Week 1 of this exploration with another line of enquiry to follow.



Image via Aan de Wandel, Flkr, under Creative Commons.


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