Eggs have hit the headlines again. Not since the Edwina Currie years has the egg industry taken such a bashing. Defra, acting on a tip-off, has discovered that some 30 million eggs labelled as free-range might actually have been laid by battery hens.
The whole industry is left ruminating over the fact that you can’t put a price on reputation. But what sort of reputation did free-range possess in the first place when its biggest virtue seems to be that it is not the battery system and allows little more freedom than barn production? In the battery system thousands of birds sit under artificial lights, crammed into wire cages that legally need be no bigger than 400sq cm. Beak trimming is common, to prevent cannibalism, and hens are given no opportunity to exhibit natural behaviours, as in the opportunity to flap their wings.
The National Farmers Union describes barn production as ‘the halfway house between cage egg production and the free-range system’. But although hens are able to perch and nest, it’s not exactly Cider with Rosie. A barn hen will never go outside and typically the stocking density (number of birds) runs into thousands. And beaks are still trimmed.
Since 2004, egg boxes have had to be more transparent about the provenance of eggs, so that ‘farm fresh’ has been replaced by ‘from caged birds’. But free-range egg boxes often still depict hens enjoying a bucolic life in lush grass. Research by a team from Oxford University in 2003 found that although, legally, free-range birds must be given eight hours of access to the outdoors each day, in practice less than 15 per cent of birds in the large systems (4,000-9,000 birds) were able to get outside. The rest were prevented by aggressive birds manning the exits.
Some good free-range producers such as Woodland Eggs advocate smaller flocks and access to trees (woodland is, after all, a hen’s natural environment). And in Harrods you can watch a livestream of Cotswold Leghorns running round outside before buying their pastel-coloured eggs (www.clarencecourt.co.uk).
Only seven per cent of eggs in UK supermarkets are certified by the Soil Association, which allows maximum stocking density of 2,000 birds (other organic labels go thousands higher), bans beak trimming and the feeding of artificial yolk colourants. The RSPCA’s Freedom Food label is also robustly inspected, guaranteeing higher standards of animal welfare from birth to slaughter.
Thankfully there’s an EU plan to phase out battery production by 2012. Meanwhile the egg industry is lobbying to replace battery cages with a new halfway house, the ‘enriched’ cage, offering a measly extra 200sq cm of space per bird. Battery cage or enriched cage? It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.
Article by Lucy Siegle for The Observer, Sunday December 10, 2006
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