Thursday, 13 June 2013

Are "Happy Eggs" really happy? (And are Viva really pro-welfare?)

Like many people, I am concerned by animal welfare but also rely on official organisations like the RCPA and their Freedom Food campaign:

When you see the Freedom Food label you know that animals have been kept to strict RSPCA welfare standards. The standards cover the whole of an animals’ life, not just their time on farm. A stimulating environment and plenty of room to move around are just two of the many benefits.

Freedom Food can also be an affordable ethical choice, as they approve indoor as well as free range and organic farms. So, make one small change to your shopping and one big change to farm animal welfare.

With the horrors of battery farms so well documented, we are especially watchful when it comes to eggs and chicken, and have been buying “Happy Eggs” for some time. In their welfare page, The Happy Egg Co. state:

All our farmers are dedicated to the wellbeing of their hens and every farm has acres of outdoor space for our hens to roam free, plenty of playhouses, trees and foliage for them to explore and rummage around in, as well as indoor space with nest boxes to give them a little bit of privacy when they’re laying.

I was therefore shocked to read a Viva investigation of “Happy Eggs” farms, which is still doing the rounds online, in which they report:

“… a very different story – one of disease, incarceration, mutilation, short lives and electric shocks.”

It makes for some pretty uncomfortable reading and, if true, really is shocking. If it’s true. The thing is, the expose by Viva is not necessarily neutral - Viva is the “Vegetarians International Voice for Animals”:

“Eating meat; fish and dairy causes environmental destruction, damages human health, contributes to global hunger and inflicts immense suffering on billions of animals across the world.

Viva! believes that the solution to all these problems is in our own hands: the best way to stop the destruction and the cruelty is to stop eating animals now – go vegetarian, or better still, vegan.”

I actually agree with a number of their points but not to the point that I think going vegetarian is the answer. We should eat less meat, certainly - not every day - and there is no need for the cheap, budget meat that floods supermarkets. Animal welfare is very important - how an animal lives is more important in many ways than how it dies. (In nature, animal death is rarely pleasant.)

The worrying thing, however, is not that Viva appears to have an agenda to discredit poultry (and other meat) farming but rather than the RSPCA and Freedom Food considered legal action and accused “Viva and Channel Five of reporting out of context and of withholding important information about animal welfare.” The lack of context included one of the farms being “under veterinary supervision for an outbreak of erysipelas” - a disease that “can unfortunately cause high levels of mortality as well as feather loss”, which accounts for some of the unpleasant observations.

That’s not the worst of the counter-accusations, though:

But the RSPCA is seemingly most angered by the fact that Viva had sat on its findings for three months, only releasing them in early October - to conincide with British Egg Week.

“If Viva had footage that demonstrated a problem as far back as July, then it should have been reported immediately so that the appropriate action could have been taken,” said the statement. “It is disturbing that this information was withheld when there was potential for on-going suffering.

“As a result of the issues raised above and the manner in which Channel Five provided evidence, we are seeking legal advice.”

A separate statement from the Happy Egg Co said it regarded the happiness of its hens as its top priority and it had immediately put in place an audit of all its farms.

So, who to believe?

The closest I have found so far to neutral coverage is on the Spud and Spike blog, which (as far as I can gather) is a personal blog by a mum on the adventures of her two kids. In a post from about a year ago (the expose itself is from 2010) - “Our visit to a Happy Egg Co Farm!” - the author reports conditions much more akin to the Happy Eggs & RSCPA point of view.

Indeed, as she points out, Compassion in World Farming awarded a second Good Egg award to Happy Eggs “in recognition of the packer’s commitment to high animal welfare”. According to the CIWF website:

“Compassion in World Farming was founded over 40 years ago in 1967 by a British farmer who became horrified by the development of modern, intensive factory farming.

Today we campaign peacefully to end all cruel factory farming practices. We believe that the biggest cause of cruelty on the planet deserves a focused, specialised approach – so we only work on farm animal welfare.”

I still find the Viva report a bit worrying - some of the welfare breaches (or “non-compliance issues”) reported were confirmed by the RSPCA - as well as some of the other reports that the RSPCA Freedom Food campaign is not really doing what it says in terms of the depth and frequency of welfare checks. That said, when reports seem to be coming from biased and unreliable sources, it is hard to know what is true and what is not.

If Viva really did sit on their footage for two or three months then they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Prolonging unnecessarily animal suffering is bad enough when it is done for food or for profit. If it is being done purely for publicity by an organisation that is nominally pro-welfare, that really would be unforgivable.

For now, I am going to continue eating Happy Egg Co. eggs - and I think I will be getting my future welfare information from Compassion in World Farming.


  1. Thank you so much for this!

  2. I never understand the viewpoint, that "there is no need for the flood of cheap meat in the supermarket".

    Sure, if you can afford to, it's better for you, the environment and the animals to go free range/cage free/grass fed.

    But to the financially destitute, dirt cheap meat and eggs are as necessary as cheap, conventionally grown produce.

    1. The viewpoint comes from the fact that we eat far more meat than we need to in our diet. We could easily spend the same amount on less higher-welfare meat, which would be better for our health and the environment. If the destitute genuinely cannot afford the meat that they NEED (as opposed to WANT), the solution is better social welfare and less inequality, not sinking to the lowest common denominator in terms of ethics.

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    3. Just wanted to say that I really appreciated your post. You have summarised a lot of the things I wanted to say but, shamefully, haven't gotten around to yet! I do question one point though, "the meat the NEED (as opposed to WANT)". Now, I'm a rabid carnivore, so I don't think I can be biased about this. However, when does ANYBODY actually NEED meat? Doing without it is perfectly healthy, even if the claims that it's actually healthier are a bit iffy. It's certainly cheaper. So was that just a slip of the mind or something more significant in your thinking?

    4. Hi Matt. It wasn't so much a slip of the mind as an omission of qualifiers. We need a certain amount of protein of the right kind because we cannot make all the different amino acids ourselves. It is certainly true that it is possible to do this without eating meat. However, it is also true that it is much easier to get our protein requirements via meat - by nature, we are omnivores, not herbivores.

      Considering this, and the fact that I was responding to someone who was making a specific claim about cheap meat and eggs being necessary, I felt it appropriate to make the assumption that meat was chosen protein source in this case. However, despite needing meat (or other protein), the key point it that we don't need as much as most people consume, especially those on a tight budget. (Easy to say but not so easy to do.) But yes, you're right - you could cut out meat completely, which would be even better for the environment.

  3. I just finished my first dozen of Happy Eggs-watched their video of the farm-and was delighted-then noticed the Viva review and was very disturbed-continued to review on google and found this article. I feel a lot better and now an off to buy my 2nd dozen Happy Eggs-Thank you.


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