“Cage free” & “free range” producers protect their “girls” by keeping them in jail
Think that “cage-free” or “free-range” label on a box of eggs or meat package amounts to more than bull-feathers?
Even if it is certified by any of the major farmed product certification organizations?
Amid the current global H5N1 high pathogenic avian influenza outbreak, most “cage-free” and “free-range” poultry producers have moved their flocks indoors to keep them from becoming infected by contact with wild birds or wild bird droppings.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, unlike the agriculture agencies in the United Kingdom and European Union, has not required “cage-free” and “free-range” producers to keep birds indoors. But because of the risk of losing their birds to the dreaded disease, most farmers are apparently confining their birds––and not talking about it.
Poultry industry anxiety is understandable.
Farmed birds are now known to have become infected in 34 of the 50 U.S. states and all ten Canadian provinces.
Infected wild birds have been found in 35 states plus all Canadian provinces and territories.
Going into May 2022, upward of 37 million chickens, ducks, geese, and other commercially raised birds had been culled in the U.S. alone, mostly by asphyxiation with carbon dioxide foam or “ventilation shutdown,” meaning essentially roasting the birds alive.
The toll by now is almost certainly higher, perhaps approaching 40 million.
Conspiracy of silence
But just try to find a word about responses to H5N1 on the web sites or social media pages of any of the major “cage free” or “free-range” companies, any of the major supermarket chains promoting “organic,” “cage free” or “free-range” poultry products, or any major farmed product certification organization.
ANIMALS 24-7, in hours of searching, found just one acknowledgement from any farm, farming conglomerate, supermarket chain, or product certification agency even acknowledging that H5N1 exists, let alone that strategies for combatting it might at best severely compromise compliance with even the weakest “humane” and “organic” standards for raising poultry, putting “cage free” and “free range” claims first in the line of fire.
The one exception that ANIMALS 24-7 found was offered by Vital Farms back on March 28, 2022.
Protecting their health before slaughter
“Our Farm Support crew has been following this virus since cases were first reported in Europe several months ago,” Vital Farms said. “We’ve been working with our farmers, veterinary partners, and government health officials to protect the health of our girls.
[Translation: by “girls,” Vital Farms means hens and chickens.]
“We also sought guidance from our animal welfare auditors including Certified Humane and Oregon Tilth,” Vital Farms said, “to ensure any approach we take has their approval as it relates to animal welfare standards.
“At this time,” Vital Farms acknowledged, “our veterinary partners, certifying bodies, and state health officials have strongly recommended that we keep our hens indoors, and we are following this guidance. We’ve also implemented heightened biosecurity measures across our network of 275 farms.
“Carefully managing barn ventilation”
“Because avian influenza is spread by wild migratory fowl, hens with outdoor access could be particularly vulnerable,” Vital Farms explained. “We shared this decision with our auditors, who agree with this approach. While the hens are inside the barn, our farmers continue to prioritize animal welfare which includes carefully managing barn ventilation and providing high-quality foraging materials and enrichments.”
As farmers killing birds by “ventilation shutdown” might also be said to be “carefully managing barn ventilation,” the 10-week-old Vital Farms statement is not especially reassuring, but it does say a lot more than the silence of all the rest.
Among the other egg suppliers “now prohibiting outdoor access is Pete & Gerry’s, which says it is the leading US producer of organic, free-range, and pasture-raised eggs,” Tom Polansek and Sybille De La Hamaide reported for Reuters on May 2, 2022.
No sign of stores posting signs
“Whole Foods, Kroger and Target Corp did not respond to questions about whether they would post notices for shoppers,” Polansek and De La Hamaide added.
ANIMALS 24-7 found no updates about “cage free” and “free range” poultry products from these chains, and none from Trader Joe’s, or for that matter any other major supermarket chains.
For all one would know from their web sites, H5N1 does not exist, never mind the mounting body count of poultry and occasional unfortunate mammals, including so far at least one human.
In the United Kingdom, the Department of Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs introduced mandatory housing measures for poultry and other captive birds on November 29, 2021, shortly after France introduced similar requirements, concurrent with killing about 16 million birds in response to H5N1 avian flu outbreaks.
“Thrown into lockdown”
The U.K. indoor housing requirement was lifted on May 2, 2022.
However, United Kingdom government web sites explain, “While birds are allowed to range outside, it remains a legal requirement for all bird keepers across the U.K., whether they have pet birds, commercial flocks, or just a few birds in a backyard flock, to follow strict biosecurity measures to limit the spread of and eradicate the disease.”
Reported Tom Polansek and Sybille De La Hamaide for Reuters on May 2, 2022, the day the United Kingdom requirements for bird-keeping were eased to again allow some “cage free” and “free range producers to operate somewhat as consumers imagine they do, “Organic and free-range chickens have been thrown into lockdown,” not by regulation but by producer fear of H5N1.
No sun on their beaks
“Egg-laying hens who normally have access to the outdoors can no longer roam as freely or feel the sun on their beaks,” Polansek and De La Hamaide explained, “as some U.S. and European farmers temporarily keep flocks inside during lethal outbreaks of bird flu, according to egg producers and industry representatives.
“The switch comes as a surprise to shoppers already shelling out more money for eggs due to the culling of infected flocks,” Polansek and De La Hamaide wrote.
“Consumers pay extra for specialty eggs, thinking they come from hens who can venture out of barns,” Polansek and De La Hamaide continued.
Normally, “Eggs labeled ‘organic’ as well as ‘free range’ must come from hens with access to the outdoors in the United States,” Polansek and De La Hamaide said, but added that “U.S. authorities do not require organic egg producers to update labels when unexpected events like bird flu change production practices,” according to a USDA spokesperson.
Up to 16 weeks of a short lifespan spent in jail is considered “freedom”
British and European Union marketing standards “allow for free-range laying hens to be kept inside for up to 16 weeks before companies must issue advisories to customers,” Polansek and De La Hamaide noted.
“Consumers should get what they pay for and they’re not getting the product as advertised,”
U.S. Public Interest Research Group food advocate Danielle Melgar told Polansek and De La Hamaide.
Countered Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases infectious diseases moderator Tam Garland, of Texas A&M University, “Without regard to a label, keeping the birds safe is paramount. Without the birds, there would be no eggs or chicken meat. Consequently, consumers have a product, despite a temporary change from free range to safely protected.”
For consumers who do not want chickens or other birds to suffer, though, the only real answer is what it always was: just don’t eat them or their eggs.