David Thompson
Posted on 31 Oct 2013

Legal definition of 'free range' helps consumers make an ethical choice

Free Range – How much do we really know?

Today, we are more concerned than ever about the origins of our food and, in the case of meat and dairy produce, the treatment of the animals concerned. Free range produce has been a hot topic in the press for a number of years, and most consumers are keen to ensure that they are purchasing from a source which protects animal welfare. But how many of us really understand what free range produce is and, more importantly, if we are actually buying the real article?

The Law

Free range production is governed by EU legislation. In the case of free range eggs, the EU Egg Marketing Regulations stipulate that for eggs to be termed 'free range', hens must have continuous daytime access to open-air runs which are mainly covered with vegetation, and with a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare. The EU Welfare of Laying Hens legislation provides more requirements in terms of hen house conditions, with very specific stipulations as to the measurements of ground surface and purchase. Similar legislation is in place for the treatment of broilers (meat chickens).

On the Shelves

The law surrounding free range is there to ensure a quality product from an animal that has lead a healthy and humane life. Millions of consumers will conduct their weekly shop in the full confidence that what they are buying is exactly what is stated on the label. But how confident can we be that we are getting what we are paying for?

In 2010, Midlands farmer Keith Owen was at the centre of a nationwide scam which conned even major supermarkets into buying over 100 million of his "free range" eggs – which were, in fact, battery farmed eggs. Worse than this, Owen also passed off huge amounts of industrial eggs as free range, which do not meet quality standards and are only permitted to be used in some processed foods.

Whilst Owen was jailed for 3 years and forced to pay back the £3 million profit he made from the scam, this may come as little comfort to those who bought his "free range" eggs in the faith that they were genuine. This leads us to question what is being done to prevent fraud like this happening in the future.

Protecting Free Range for the Future

Particularly since the free range egg fiasco of last year, the monitoring of free range produce has increased significantly. The FSA has a dedicated Food Fraud Advisory Unit, which holds a database of every product, supplier, ingredient and associated manufacturer to ensure everything is traceable. Scientific research is also employed to identify the composition or provenance of suspect food.