It seemed like such a simple ethical decision: free-range eggs instead of caged. Well-treated chickens; clearer consciences. Less suffering all round. Perhaps it was naive to think it would be that simple.

Free-range describes eggs obtained from hens which are not confined to cages. They are allowed to roam freely within farmyards, sheds or chicken coops, with the exact conditions varying according to different countrys’ regulations.

The UK population favours free-range eggs as an alternative to caged, accounting for 44% of all eggs in 2011. Sales of caged eggs began to fall significantly in early 2008, a trend which gained momentum with high-profile television campaigns. Several prominent companies and supermarkets have banned caged eggs, including Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, The Co-operative, Starbucks, Little Chef and Foxes Biscuits.

Nobel Foods are Britain’s largest egg producer, supplying a number of large supermarkets including Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, as well as their own well-known Happy Egg label. The paradox of the situation is that growing demand for more ethical farming has led to increased stocking density, with profit increases overshadowing concerns for welfare. The resulting conditions are now only marginally better than the factory farms we sought to escape in the first place.

An undercover investigation into a Nobel Foods farm in Scotland by Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (Viva) and Five News, revealed some shocking facts. Hens are not allowed to roam freely until they are 18-21 weeks old, growing up in crowded sheds amongst thousands of others. They become conditioned to staying indoors, so many don’t venture out even when they have the option to, making egg collection easier.

In direct disregard of the RSPCA’s Freedom Food scheme, which is supposed to maintain high standards of welfare for farm animals, electric wires are used to control the behaviour of young chicks. At least one barn was infested with red mite, a parasite which causes skin irritations and can lead to anaemia and death in young birds. Many hens were missing feathers due to fights.

The natural behaviour of these birds, descended from jungle fowl, has not been fundamentally altered by domestication and selective breeding. They still spend most of their time foraging, congregate in small groups with a social hierarchy, seek perches for roosting and build nests for egg laying. These basic behavioural requirements are supposed to be met by free-range systems; the birds at Nobel Foods are definitely not a testament to this.

Hens are sent to slaughter at 72 weeks old, a fraction of their 10-year lifespan.

This investigation was conducted in 2010, and after Nobel Foods were made aware, they conducted their own internal inquiry. RSPCA Freedom Food were also contacted, and decided “potential” causes for concern warranted further investigation. Yet they allowed these conditions to develop in the first place and without regular checks, so how can we be sure standards are being maintained? It is up to the consumer to make informed decisions; if you are paying more for free-range eggs, consider what you are actually paying for.