Caged, barn or free-range, which eggs are best?
After spending more than I would normally spend on a box of organic, free-range eggs from a local farm in Sussex on a recent trip to the supermarket, I was really shocked when a friend told me I was wasting my money. "All eggs are the same," he claimed. "There is no such thing as 'free-range'". Not wanting to believe him, I decided to look into this a bit further - is there really a great deal of difference between eggs from caged, barn and free-range chickens? Should we pay more for so-called 'organic' eggs and are chickens on free-range farms really getting a better quality of life? Time to find out.
Life on a budget
For some of us, the choice of which eggs to make our morning omelette with may be a matter of price, and what's most affordable. A typical large 'value' egg from a major supermarket chain costs around 16p, whilst a large free-range egg costs 28p and you'll pay even more for an organic egg - typically around 38p. That hikes the price of a three-egg omelette quite considerably, if you're on a budget! But next time you sit down to poached eggs on toast, think about the fact that some so-called 'free-range' hens never actually see daylight. They live in cramped, dirty conditions where overcrowding and disease is an everyday occurrence. Whilst there are farms offering excellent facilities for their free-range hens, some have shockingly low standards.
Did you know that 50% of all eggs sold in the UK's supermarkets are 'free-range' and many retailers, such as Waitrose, M & S, Co-op and Sainsburys, no longer sell eggs from caged birds. But as the demand for free-range eggs has increased, farms have had to grow to meet this demand. Under Freedom Foods and British Lion quality assurance schemes, farmers can house up to 16,000 hens in one building, with 9 hens allowed to every square metre of space. Legislation does exist as to how much outside space must be available to hens on free-range farms - at least 10,000 suare metres per 2,500 hens. But only the individual farmers get to decide how often the birds get to go outside; and many never see the light of day.
Some farms are overcrowded, dark and unsanitary. Birds living in crowded flocks can peck each other and resort to cannibalism out of stress. Whilst beak trimming, where an infra-red burner or blade is used to remove the top and bottom part of the beak, has been banned in many countries, it's still common practice here in the UK, to prevent birds from pecking each other in cramped spaces.
Unhappy hens = unhealthy eggs
You might think that by purchasing a well-known brand of free-range eggs, you'll be choosing a safe option, but just one look at the famous Happy Eggs brand should tell you that's not always the case. Happy Eggs are accredited by the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme, yet the brand came under fire when inspections revealed poor conditions in two Fife hen farms owned by the brand, where birds were kept indoors and controlled using electric wires. Parasitic infestations were rife and dozens of birds had lost their feathers due to being pecked by other hens.
So why do we choose free-range? Well, we believe that it means hens are living healthier, happier lives, and we also think that this will lead to higher-quality, healthier eggs. But research carried out in 2010 by Bristol's veterinary school revealed that hens in 'enriched cages', which can hold up to 80 hens and provide nest boxes, perches and plenty of space, were actually less stressed and suffered fewer pecking injuries than free-range birds.
So which eggs are best?
Whether you're a fan of egg and soldiers, prefer poached eggs on toast or like a fried egg sarnie, if you're wondering how to stop worrying about where your eggs have come from, and what conditions the hens that laid them are living in, the good news is that there are a few things you can do to make sure you're buying the best eggs possible, from the happiest hens.
- Make sure you buy from a retailer with its own inspection scheme, such as M&S or Waitrose. M&S has a farm assurance scheme and regularly inspects its suppliers, whilst Waitrose ensures they also regularly check out their suppliers
- Buy organic - This isn't always a guarantee that farms have the perfect conditions, but standards are generally higher than on other free-range farms. Organic free-range farms can have a maximum of 2,000 birds per flock, with only 6 birds allowed per square metre of outside space. These birds are also allowed more outdoor access.
- Look for the RSPCA Freedom Foods label - Again, it's not always a guarantee, but eggs with this label will usually have come from hens living in better conditions
- Buy locally - If you're lucky enough to live near a farm, buy your eggs from the farm shop. Many farms will be only too happy to talk to you about the living conditions of the hens, or you may even be able to visit and see for yourself!