As the retail industry and even household customers go the cruelty-free way, the demand for cage-free and range-free eggs is steadily going north
How would you like your eggs? Poached, scrambled, pan fried, baked or as good-old omelet? No matter which option your taste buds stick with, a handful of diners across various cities in India are ensuring that your day starts on a cruelty-free note. These diners include coffee shops, restaurants and even luxury resorts and hotels, and they are doing so by serving you cage-free or range free eggs.
Free-range fried eggs (served with spiced sweet potatoes and chickpea hash), free-range baked eggs (served in spiced tomato and pepper sauce), Mexican style free-range poached eggs (on a bed of spiced tomatoes kidney bean stew) – reads the menu of Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters, a coffee-house chain spread across various cities in India.
According to Sarah Nicole Edward, menu consultant and curator of Blue Tokai, since the coffee chain is devoted to helping local farmers by serving native coffee, the food menu had to match the standards. “Although it was difficult to find range-free eggs, I was focused towards creating a menu with cruelty-free eggs. It was important to do so to match their good quality coffee,” says Sarah, who also helps her clients find good ingredients, apart from designing their menus.
With increase in popularity of cage-free and range-free eggs, the food industry is leaving no stone unturned in serving customers what they want – cruelty-free food. Ashley Numes, a chef in Goa, is also busy designing his free-range egg-based menu for an upcoming luxury resort. Ashley is going free-range in his a la carte menu.
“The decision to go with free-range eggs was taken by both me and the resort management. We want to start by featuring free-range eggs in the a la carte menu. The menu will specify the egg type and will also explain the concept of free-range eggs to customers,” says Ashley.
Not just coffee houses and hotels, increasingly, people are demanding cage-free and free-range eggs at retail shops, too. Whether it is growing concern about animal cruelty or preference for a chemical-free nutritious source of protein, these unconventional, humane eggs are being picked up off the shelves more frequently than ever before.
According to Tarun Gupta, director of Henfruit, a Delhi and Punjab based egg company, the demand for cage-free eggs is increasing every year and every quarter. “With Club Carlson hotels pledging to go cage-free, IKEA and many big retail companies advocating humane treatment to hens, producers have no option but to start shifting towards cage-free. Our customer base includes hotels of Club Carlson and retail stores like IKEA and Walmart,” says Tarun.
It is not just retail industry giants, even household customers are going the cruelty-free way. “This is happening as more and more customers become aware about the nutritional aspects of cage-free eggs and about animal-cruelty. I just have one store in Jalandhar and customers make sure I have good stock all the time. There have been instances when they have driven to stores out of Jalandhar just to buy these eggs,” Tarun explained.
According to Manjunath, founder, Happy Hens, while such customers or retail stores form a small group, the number is increasing slowly, but steadily. “We have been in this business since 2010 and while the demand for our range-free eggs has been increasing over time, it has gathered momentum in the last two years. We have started getting enquiries from big hotel chains. Corporate consumers – chefs from big hotels – have a good understanding of working with local producers and treating animals in cruel-free manner. We have potential customers in organic consumers. We are asking them to look even beyond organic and trying to explain that the best quality animal product is the one that comes from an animal that is treated well,” he says.
While many poultry farmers are abstaining from cage-free/range-free eggs citing low production, Manjunath feels, sooner or later, farmers will have to bring about a change in their farming style and methods. “No matter how much production falls, if the customer wants it, you must provide it. There is a consumer shift happening in a big way and the only way forward is to do away with caged farming,” adds Manjunath.
However, many believe that there is not much difference in production when averaged out over a year. “Production entirely depends on the time of the year. The cage free system works best during moderate weather conditions. During winters, production is more among caged birds due to temperature control, whereas during summers, cage free production exceeds caged set-ups,” says Tarun, whose farm is currently housing six lakh birds, with around 30,000 as cage-free.
“Yes, there is an increase in demand. Customers are asking for better quality eggs. Retailers are moving in to fulfil the demand. People are either financially better off or are more aware about either ethical issues or health issues involved in the production,” says Saurabh Nakra, national sales and marketing manager, Keggfarms.
While the capital investment in transition to cage-free farming is high, farmers are making the choice, sensing the mood of the future market.
“As a farmer, all positives are with caged farming. It is almost three times cheaper, chances of disease are less and production is better. Creating the space for cage free farming straight away pushes the capital investment up by three times. Confined set-ups also help farmers with controlling the spread of disease. Moreover, collection of eggs and cleaning them is yet another difficulty we face with cage free farming,” explains Tarun.
All the difficulties apart, Tarun still advocates cage-free farming. “Seeing those birds crammed in small cages every morning is not a good sight. You can see that the birds are struggling to even more around. This is a trend that has to catch on. In western countries, caged products will soon be a small portion of the market and it’s time for us to do the same,” says Tarun, whose farm is all set to let 25,000 caged birds go free.
Cage-free vs. Range-free
According to Manjunath, while cage-free might be a better situation for the birds than caged, going range-free is the only futuristic option. “An industrial set up of cage-free farming might sound good today, but accumulating too many birds in one place, even if in a larger area, will become a factory set up down the lane. A simple analogy can be a classroom of 35 kids against a classroom of 100 kids. The results with 100 kids are not going to be uniform no matter what technology you use,” says Manjunath, who believes that range-free farming is not only a humane way of farming, but it also offers local farmers an alternative source of income.
“We justify our brand name by giving our hens freedom to move about and lay eggs naturally. We also implement the best international standards and carry out our social responsibility. We work with farmers, which essentially means decentralizing farming. We generate an alternate source of income for farmers,” says Manjunath.
Step by step measures to move towards cage free
The following is a step-by-step measure on how a person with around 20,000 hens with three to four canals in 1/3 acre of land can transition from cage to cage-free system of farming. The measures have been put in place by Animal Equality, a Pune-based NGO working for animal protection, after consulting cage-free poultry farmers.
- Remove cages from one shed
- Cover the pit area with a concrete slab making an even floor
- Multiple floors built in same space
- Develop nesting area with an earthen pot for collection of eggs.
- Separate feeding area and water drinkers (plastic feeders and water drinkers are readily available in the market)
- Desi breeds, which were not feasible in battery cages, can also be housed in this system.
- Every 60-90 days, a new batch of birds is brought in, so introduce this batch to the cage-free system and you can transit from a caged farm to a cage-free farm within 24-30 months
- Older birds will find it difficult to adapt to a new environment and hence it is advised to start the system with day-old chicks
- Many farms raise chicks within 100 days of age in a cage-free area to attain better body weight
- The cost of transition to a cage-free system from the existing infrastructure per bird is between Rs.50-60 (reduced capacity is not included in calculation, it is Rs. 180 per bird if we take that into account).
Animal Equality has been working with food companies, encouraging them to ban cages from their egg supply chain.
Report on poultry welfare (layer)
According to a survey report prepared by Animal Equality, the following are examples of the cruelty that egg farming industry inflicts upon the birds:
- Debeaking – Debeaking is the process of mutilating the beaks of a few day-old chicks with a hot blade without any anaesthesia. The machine lowers every 3 seconds which means the person has 3 seconds of time to free the debeaked chick, grab another and place her beak over the hot blade properly. This haste usually results in hurting the chicks. Many times, beaks are trimmed excessively or bent whilst pushing chicks’ heads against the blade.
- Forced molting – Though this practice is illegal as per the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and the orders of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), it is still widely practised by the layer industry. Owners accept this practice unabashedly.
This practice deprives egg-laying hens of food to rejuvenate their reproductive tracts and stimulate additional cycles of egg production. Food could be withheld for up to 14 days and water deprived for 1-2 days inflicting suffering on the hen and a loss in body weight up to 35%.
This practice of food withdrawal has been widely questioned throughout the world and is already prohibited in Australia, the European Union and the United States by the egg industry’s animal husbandry program.
- Four to eight hens crammed in a cage no bigger than two A4 sheets of paper.
- Hens can’t even spread their wings resulting in psychological and physical stress and injuries.
- Hens often trample on each other in an attempt to find space, resulting in psychological and physical stress and injuries.
- Due to the wired floor of the cage, their feet become sore, cracked and deformed.
- Hens often scratch the ground, which keeps their claws in shape but in battery cages, they cannot practice this behaviour. Overgrown claws are another common sight at egg farms.
- The injuries caused due to the wire floor are left untreated leading to infection, which could be avoided with timely veterinary care.
- Many hens also had missing feathers, abrasions and irritations on their skin, probably due to the high concentration of ammonia from their litter.
- These overcrowded cages are usually stacked one on top of another, causing urine and feces to fall onto birds in lower cages.
- The litter is collected in huge piles underneath the stacked cages. And it is disposed of once every few weeks. The lack of timely disposal can lead to diseases and mortality among the birds.
Image Credit: Happy Hens & Animal Equality