We initially investigated another issue, namely the depiction of hens with untrimmed beaks on the Happy Egg Co. website. However, following receipt of the complaints, Happy Egg Co removed the images showing hens with untrimmed beaks from their website and we therefore resolved that issue informally.
A website for The Happy Egg Co, www.thehappyegg.co.uk, seen in February 2021, featured a large image of chickens walking across grass alongside a tree. The headline claim stated “FREE RANGE AND HAPPY, NATURAL GOODNESS STARTS WITH OUR HENS”. Further text below included “We work hard every day to keep all our free-range hens happy. Giving them acres of field to explore, foliage and trees to play in and only picking the very best farmers to work with. As a result, all of our farms exceed free-range standards in the UK, as set by the RSPCA farm assurance scheme, Freedom Foods.” A sub-heading underneath stated “PERCHING AND PREENING” followed by the text “We designed special activity kits to help our girls do whatever comes naturally. Like perching, sheltering or having a catch up. And, because hens love cleaning their feathers, we include dust baths on all our farms.”
Five members of the public and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which had visited three farms that supplied eggs to The Happy Egg Co and understood that hens there were kept in confined, overcrowded spaces and had their beaks trimmed challenged whether the claims “Free Range and Happy, Natural Goodness Starts with our hens. We work hard to keep all our free-range hens happy. Giving them acres of field to explore, foliage and trees to play in” and “All of our farms exceed free-range standards in the UK as set by the RSPCA Farm assurance scheme, Freedom Foods” were misleading and could be substantiated.
Noble Foods Ltd t/a Happy Egg Co. said that all of their supplier farms were subjected to a rigorous vetting process. They had to be approved by the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), the government Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and be certified as an RSPCA Assured farm before they could apply to be a Happy Egg supplier. RSPCA Assured Farm status was determined by meeting standards set out in a document entitled “RSPCA Welfare standards for laying hens”.
As an initial step, Happy Egg Co. searched BEIC's database to ensure a prospective supplier was BEIC approved and inspected the prospective supplier's RSPCA certificate to ensure it was an RSPCA Assured farm. An initial farm visit was then conducted by a member of their in-house Agriculture Management Team to assess the farm against a list of core criteria, such as hens' feather condition, flocks' general health, range conditions, and availability of shelters. An RSPCA Assured farm was required to have at least 5% "natural cover" in place, which included trees and foliage. However, they required all potential suppliers to have a suitable plan in place to achieve a higher percentage of natural cover, in excess of the RSPCA's minimum standards. Therefore, as part of their initial visit, a tree audit was also completed to identify any additional planting that might be required in the current or next planting season and the plan was agreed with the potential supplier. They said that they also encouraged all potential suppliers to use their Happy Egg play kits, and they provided images of wooden structures which they said provided additional shelter for hens, and agreed their allocation with the potential supplier. They also provided an example questionnaire which they completed for each farm they inspected.
Following their visit to a potential supplier, a report was completed, an example of which they provided. The report outlined various questions including feather and flock health conditions, litter conditions, enrichments, and range conditions. They then assessed the overall results and graded the farm as "Red", "Amber" or "Green". The “Green” standard was required to qualify as an approved supplier for Happy Egg. If a potential supplier met their requirements, they then planned the farm's transition to adopt their bespoke Happy Egg feed before the supplier could be integrated into the Happy Egg supply network. The supplier could begin supplying eggs ten days after the delivery of Happy Egg feed, to allow time for nutrient uptake by the birds. Once suppliers were approved, they were subject to eight different types of audit carried out at varying frequencies to ensure they maintained the required standard, some of which could be unannounced, including by the RSPCA. Those organisations, or the suppliers themselves, made Happy Egg Co. aware of any issues found during such audits. They provided a list of audits and their frequency.
All of their suppliers were certified as free-range by the APHA, which imposed a minimum standard that laying hens did not have their access to open air runs restricted for a continuous period of more than 16 weeks. Their bespoke Happy Egg feed was fortified with vitamins, and contained 28% more Vitamin D per 100 g than standard eggs. They also promoted hens' happiness through Happy Egg play kits and dust baths to clean their feathers.
They said that the RSPCA welfare standards for laying hens stated that for birds aged 21 weeks and older, stocking density should not exceed 2,000 hens per hectare over the life of the flock and 2,500 hens per hectare at any one time. All their suppliers complied with the RSPCA Standards and provided access to at least one hectare or 2.47 acres of range per 2,000 hens. This was checked and recorded during audit visits. Based on their latest audit data, they said that the average stocking density at their supplier farms was 1,973 birds per hectare and that each hen, on average, had 5.07 square metres of space on the range. The RSPCA standards also required that for birds aged under 21 weeks, the range area should provide at least one square metre per bird at all times and they said that all of their suppliers complied with that. Hens had free access to the range throughout the day and the number of hens using it could vary from farm to farm, dependant on weather conditions, though there was usually a greater percentage of a flock using a range in the afternoon and evening. The use of a range by hens combined with prolonged periods of wet weather led to poached areas of ground, and prolonged dry periods of weather combined with heavy bird footfall could wear down the grass and lead to a dry and dusty appearance. Their suppliers followed Happy Egg Co.’s and third-parties' range management programmes to re-establish worn areas.Happy Egg Co. said that hens were housed indoors at night to protect them from predators. The RPSCA Standards required that all RSPCA Assured farms provided birds with access to at least 5% natural cover whilst out on the range, which comprised existing or newly-planted trees, shrubs or other canopy forming plants.
Happy Egg Co. said that all of their supplier farms provided hens with more than 5% natural cover, with 86% of hens having access to ranges with more than 20% natural cover, 12% having access to 10-19% and 2% having access to 5-9%. They carried out additional tree assessments and counted them to ensure compliance, and could provide us with their database if required. They provided a copy of their Range Management Policy document.
They said that they were aware that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had inspected three farms that supplied eggs to The Happy Egg Co. and that they lodged complaints with the RSPCA concerning the treatment of hens at those farms. Upon receipt of those complaints the RSPCA suspended the farms' membership to the RSPCA Assured farm scheme whilst investigations were made and the RSPCA informed them of the allegations. They said that they immediately suspended the three suppliers from the Happy Egg pool and launched their own investigation which ran alongside that of the RSPCA. The RSPCA investigated all three farms but after a rigorous physical inspection they reinstated two of the farms the next day, after concluding that they already met the RSPCA Assured farm standards. A third farm was subjected to a longer two-week investigation and required to take some remedial actions, after which it was also reinstated by the RSPCA. The Happy Egg Co. then conducted their own audits of the farms to ensure they met their own enhanced standards. The farms were reinstated as approved suppliers once they were satisfied those standards had been met.
Happy Egg Co. said that this process illustrated the effectiveness of their safeguarding measures. They provided video footage of one of their supplier's farms, as well as images of three of their supplier farms from May 2021, which they said depicted the hens' environment.
The website included the claims “Free Range and Happy, Natural Goodness Starts with our hens. We work hard to keep all our free-range hens happy. Giving them acres of field to explore, foliage and trees to play in” and “All of our farms exceed free-range standards in the UK as set by the RSPCA Farm assurance scheme, Freedom Foods”. The ASA considered that those claims, together with the brand name “Happy Egg Co.”, would be understood by consumers to mean that the hens which supplied Happy Egg Co.’s eggs were free range and able to enjoy access to open space and greenery and that they lived in conditions which exceeded the RSPCA’s free-range standards with regard to the space to which they had access. We also considered that the imagery shown of hens surrounded by greenery and open space on the website contributed to that impression. We understood that having tree cover was important for hens’ welfare because trees were considered by the RSPCA to be effective in encouraging range use and foraging behaviours in free-range laying hens. PETA believed that consumers would understand the claims and visual depictions, as well as the branding “Happy Egg Co.”, to mean that hens on farms which supplied Happy Egg Co.’s eggs were able to stretch, roam, forage and dust bathe, and had easy access to green grass and freedom from overcrowding and stress.
They had inspected three supplier farms between 15 September and 26 October 2020 and shared video footage of the farms, which showed a large number of hens inside sheds within confined spaces, open, barren space next to sheds with no foliage or greenery where hens were roaming, several hens missing feathers and one hen with a cut on its skin, faeces inside sheds, several dead hens, and scenes of other hens pecking a dead hen. They believed the footage indicated that the farms inspected did not exceed, and in some cases failed to meet, RSPCA Assured Farm standards in relation to food and water contamination, facilitation of movement between different tiers of the shed, provision of adequate enrichment, encouragement of birds to use the outdoor areas, provision of adequate vegetation cover, and frequency of inspections. We noted that two of the farms were reinstated the next day after an inspection showed they had met RSPCA Assured Farm standards and that the third farm was also reinstated by the RSPCA after two weeks, having undertaken a number of remedial actions. While one of the farms was determined by the RSPCA to have failed their Assured Farm standards, we did not consider that was in itself indicative that Happy Egg Co. supplier farms did not meet those standards.
We understood that beak trimming was currently permitted under the RSPCA’s Assured Farm standards, as prohibiting it could lead to injurious pecking and have a negative welfare impact on some flocks.
We looked at the audit list supplied by Happy Egg Co. and understood that their supplier farms were subject to eight different audits at various frequencies, five of which were internal audits and three of which were external audits. Happy Egg Co. carried out a Regional Management Team farm visit every ten weeks, a Subscriber Lion audit every six months, a tree audit every two years, a food safety protocol assessment every six months and an Environmental audit annually. An RSPCA assured audit was carried out annually, an Animal & Plant Health Agency audit was carried out annually, and a Lion Code audit was carried out every 18 months.
The example questionnaire for each farm inspected included various questions, such as the conditions of the farm, flock health, feather conditions of hens, litter conditions, enrichments, environmental conditions, range conditions including whether shelters were within 20 metres of the shed, and the procedure in place for dead hens. We also looked at the Range Management Policy document which set out various requirements including total range area, percentage of area with natural cover, decontamination and sanitisation procedures, fencing, range shelters, range management, and paddock rotation.
We considered that this information demonstrated that there were comprehensive measures in place to ensure that all of the Happy Egg Co.’s supplier farms provided hens with access to outdoor spaces and greenery, and satisfied the RSPCA Assured Farm standards for free-range hens.We noted that Happy Egg Co. stated that they encouraged their suppliers to use the activity kits they had developed to enhance hens’ stimulation and natural behaviours. It was not clear whether those kits were of a standard that exceeded the minimum requirements for enrichment activities set by the RSPCA, or what proportion of supplier farms used them in practice.
However, we noted that all of the supplier farms of Happy Egg Co. exceeded the 5% natural cover requirement set out by RSPCA welfare standards for laying hens, as referred to by PETA and Happy Egg Co. to determine RSPCA Assured Farm status, with the vast majority having at least 20% natural cover. We considered that demonstrated that the farms exceeded RSPCA Assured Farm minimum standards with regard to the nature of the outdoor space that was provided to hens to roam. We concluded that the claims “Free Range and Happy, Natural Goodness Starts with our hens. We work hard to keep all our free-range hens happy. Giving them acres of field to explore, foliage and trees to play in” and “All of our farms exceed free-range standards in the UK as set by the RSPCA Farm assurance scheme, Freedom Foods”, as consumers were likely to understand them in context, had been substantiated and were not misleading.
We investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) and 3.11 3.11 Marketing communications must not mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product. (Exaggeration), but did not find it in breach.
No further action required.