Choosing the basket your eggs come from…
So we’ve established that the chicken came before the egg. The blog post at least… The UK gets through around 13 billion eggs per year – that’s a lot of chickens! Each hen can produce between 300-350 eggs a year – almost one a day. So it is big business. You will have noticed that most eggs bear some stamps and markings on them, which identify their class, and how they have been produced. How much do these differences make to quality, or flavour? Is it worth paying the higher price for an organic egg, for example? I always assumed that unless you are eating the shell, the lack of pesticides isn’t going to make a huge difference. I am wrong! The organic certification goes a lot further than the use of pesticides. So let’s take a look at the markings, codes etc, and work out what makes a difference and what is worth paying for.
You would have thought that the requirements for egg laying hens and meat producing chickens would be the same – after all, a chicken is a chicken and shouldn’t they all have the same welfare requirements? Apparently not!
The minimum space requirement for an RSPCA assured egg laying hen is 9 hens per square meter (psm). That is 10 less than for meat producing chickens. It is a legal requirement for hens to “ to stand normally, turn around and stretch their wings”. They must also be able to have access to perches.
Hen welfare is closely related to the production method. The following codes are usually seen on eggs bought in retail
- 0 – Organic
- 1 – Free range
- 2 – Barn
- 3 – Cage
Starting from the lowest welfare category, caged hens are now only allowed in so called ‘enhanced’ cages in the UK. Battery cages have been banned since 2012, and have been replaced with ones that provide more space and light, a nesting area and perches.
In category 2, barn egg hens are able to move freely around the hen house. Again, perches must be provided, and litter must account for 1/3 of ground surface, for hens to indulge in natural behaviours such as scratching and dust bathing, to keep feathers clean, with a maximum of 9 hens per sqm.
Free range hens must have continuous daytime access to runs which are mainly covered with vegetation. The same requirements as for barn eggs also apply inside the hen house, again with a maximum of 9 hens per sqm.
The last category, organic, are always free range, and must be fed an organically produced diet, and be raised on organic land. A maximum of 6 hens per sqm is allowed, and stipulated perch size is larger than for free range.
There are several further classifications/standards in the UK that you may be familiar with. RSPCA and the Lion Code are the most common ones. RSPCA refers to animal welfare. The Lion Code refers to food safety, in particular the eradication of salmonella. However if your eggs come from a local farm shop and don’t have a Lion Code stamp on them, it absolutely doesn’t mean they aren’t safe – other schemes such as Laid in Britain also ensure eggs are salmonella free. 90% of eggs in the UK are produced according to the Lion Code.
RSPCA assured hens aren’t allowed in cages – even the enriched cages. RSPCA assured free range is also more stringent than traditional free range, with requirements for shade and shelter making the animals feel safer.
The Lion Code of practice, whilst mainly related to food safety, also has more stringent criteria for the definition of barn, free range and organic eggs. For barn eggs, the stocking density is lower; for free range, the Lion Code stipulates a specific size of pop hole (doorway) by number of hens, open for 8 hours per day, the provision of outdoor shading, and again maximum density requirements. Similarly with organic eggs, the Lion Code stipulates a larger pop hole and further density requirements.
In the UK and EU, eggs are classed as A or B. Only A class can be sold to retail – B class are imperfect (eg slightly misshapen, thin shells etc), and are used in manufacturing – eg making pasteurised egg yolk. Though there is no difference in the way they were produced and therefore the safety or taste!
There are no markings to classify flavour, but it can vary greatly. Much like with chicken, a hen that has had a better diet, and life outdoors, should produce a far better tasting egg! Some egg producers even develop their hens’ diets with Michelin starred chefs (see interview here with Fluffetts Farm). Anecdotally, I have heard that if you feed a hen chocolate, eggs will taste of chocolate for days afterwards – so it definitely seems worth looking into! Pesticides don’t necessarily only affect the outside of the shell – chickens and eggs are as much what they eat as we are. Domini, founder of Tried & Supplied, also spoke to the owners of Cacklebean Farm about the diet and way of life of their famous hens – they have taken years to achieve the characteristic deep yellow yolk and pronounced flavour of their eggs. A fascinating story!
Animal welfare, the feed and environment hens live in impacts on the quality and flavour of their eggs. Depending on what your eggs are being used for, it is worth thinking about your purchasing choices – sustainability and supply chain experts such as Tried & Supplied can help you make informed choices, and find the best prices for the quality you are looking for. Much like with chicken, consumers are aware of the importance of provenance and are willing to pay a premium if it is known and respected.