Current EU practices surrounding chicken welfare and egg production have improved, but there’s still room for improvement, writes Clare Hunt
It’s true to say that there are few foods as versatile, adaptable, nutritious and delicious as eggs. They appear at breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper, can be sweet or savoury, the main event or a supporting act. So it’s only right that British consumers are very interested in where their eggs come from and how they’re produced.
The salmonella scandal of 1988 really focussed public attention on egg production. Since then, there’s been constant consumer pressure on the government and producers to improve both animal welfare and product labelling. In 2012, so-called ‘barren’ cages – the worst-case scenario for chickens and at the core of ‘battery’ production – were banned in the EU. These barren cages allowed their occupants space only to eat, drink and lay eggs – other natural behaviours, such as nesting, roosting, stretching and scratching, were impossible in such cramped quarters.
Currently, the eggs that you eat will have been produced in one of four systems:
Caged: birds have 600cm2 of space each, with limited roosting, perching and scratching facilities. Cages may be stacked nine-high.
Barn reared: birds are kept indoors at all times, but are free to move around. Flock sizes can be vast, so space is at a premium.
Free range: with daytime access to green, outdoor space, free-range chickens are housed inside at night in bedded barns with perches. With no limit on flock size, free-range systems can vary from small groups living in very natural environments to large groups in multi-tier housing.
Organic: generally considered to have the potential for the highest and most consistent welfare standards, birds live in flocks of limited size, are fed on a wholly organic diet and have more access to outside space than birds in any other system.
In response to continued public pressure, most UK supermarkets have undertaken to ditch eggs from caged birds by 2025, meaning all boxed eggs sold will be barn reared or free range.
But does that mean we’re off the hook when it comes to caring about where our eggs come from? Sadly not. There are still many hidden eggs in processed food that we may not know about or give a thought to. While we’re buying more free-range and organic boxed eggs, around 60% of eggs used in processed food are from caged birds.
Luckily, Devon is a county well blessed with farmers producing top-quality eggs in high-welfare systems. So seek one out, ask questions and understand the differences.
There’s nothing more gratifying than opening the nest box and collecting a fresh egg. But if you’re a first timer, where to start? Sarah Barker from Weeke Farm in Spreyton talks us through the basics.
“Chickens make fantastic pets for the whole family. They are inquisitive, quirky and each one has its own personality. When tame, they enjoy human company and will happily feed from your hand – something children particularly love!
“Hens have relatively basic needs and once you’re set up, they’re easy to look after. They require a draft-free home with 8 inches of perch space each and somewhere cosy to lay their eggs – one nest box for every three hens. The house itself doesn't need to be huge as they will spend most of their time outside, unless it's raining!
“A grassy run with shelter from the rain and some dry soil for dust bathing is perfect – all hens are happier if they can freely roam. If this isn’t an option, try to give them at least 15 square feet per bird. Moveable fencing is useful, as it allows you to move your hens around the garden.
“Hens need a supply of fresh water and layers’ pellets. To keep parasites away, we recommend you regularly treat them with a powder called diatomaceous earth and give them apple cider vinegar in their water each month to keep worms at bay.
“Hens are great pets. Once you get them, you'll be hooked!”
John Widdowson runs Exe Valley Eggs, producing free-range eggs on his farm near Tiverton. John was influential in establishing the British Free Range Egg Producers Association. “In recent years, the egg industry has made massive strides in terms of bird welfare and food safety, making British-produced eggs the very best. Consumers now have a huge choice of eggs from a wide range of production systems. There are strict labelling regulations in place and information must be clearly displayed on the egg pack, including the method of production.
“If it’s free-range eggs that consumers want, then this will be clearly marked on the pack. While there could be some difference in taste and nutritional content between an egg from a hen that’s been supplementing its diet with fresh pasture and that of an egg from a hen that doesn’t go outside, I don’t believe that’s why consumers choose to buy free range. When paying the extra for free-range eggs, it is likely that they are doing so because they are buying into a high-welfare production system.
“I love working with hens, and our aim is to provide them with the very best conditions – and the hens reward us by laying great-tasting eggs. We’ve been producing free-range eggs for 26 years and I still get a thrill from seeing a field full of happy hens first thing each morning after we’ve let them out!”
All eggs sold in UK shops or public markets must be stamped with a code that states: country of origin, farm of origin, production method.
Around 85% of UK eggs are stamped with the British Lion Mark accreditation, indicating that they’ve been produced to a code of practice operated by the British Egg Industry Council. Some may have additional stamps if they’re part of assurance schemes such as Laid in Britain or RSPCA Freedom Foods.