Eggs are eggs right…? Part 3

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, on each store bought egg there is a Lion Brand Stamp. This means the egg is produced in a place that has vaccinated its hens against salmonella and also tells you something about the way the hen is being treated. Just to the right of the stamped Red Lion is a number, each indicating the farming method:

0 – organic
1 – free-range
2 – barn
3 – caged
In the last post we looked at the darkest of these – number 3. Please read that and further articles, of which there are many brilliant ones on the net, to fully comprehend that warning you off these isn’t just some hippy-dippy beaded protest, it’s a real and diabolical human travesty against hens that we must not be a part of. Please. I thank you…
So, what of the other ways of farming hens…? The RSPCA only cautions against ‘caged’ eggs. Everyone agrees that the caged system is grim, but the real controversy starts beyond those methods. The numbering system implies a better condition and better product as it counts down and the price counts up. BUT are they really that much better? Is there a clear winner in the short term and a long term solution? First let’s look at the other options beyond the caged system.
Number 2 refers to the ‘barn’ farmed hens and their eggs. Now, doesn’t the word ‘barn’ conjure up all sorts of homestyle images of the sun setting on wheat fields and idyllic country life? Ahh how nice! Well, not for the hens, of course, as it’s basically it’s a huge metal hangar (not so romantic now eh?) The British Egg Information Service ( says of barn hens:

The hen house conditions for barn hens are set by the EU Welfare of Laying Hens legislation and stipulate a maximum stocking density of 9 hens per square metre of useable area (which is still pretty crowded btw – MB). Hens must be provided with nest boxes. Adequate perches, providing 15 centimetres of perch per hen, must also be provided. Litter must be provided, accounting for one-third of the ground surface – this is used for scratching and dust bathing.

The RSPCA agree that this is generally ok and allow their Freedom Food logo to be used on these eggs but it’s hardly ‘freedom’ is it? Well, it’s definitely a step up from the cages and at least there can be some perching and dust bathing and the multi-tiered barns allow for some up and down flying too. However, critics say the birds are trampling about in their own waste products, stressed by overcrowding, disorientated by the artificial light and never take in a scrap of fresh air their whole lives. The birds are stuffed together and still fed continuously for maximum egg production so does the chance of spending a few moments on a 15cm perch really equate to adequate conditions for the hens and does it therefore make for good healthy hens and eggs?

Further to this, it seems that the next level of egg production, labelled ‘Free Range’ and stamped with the number 1, is only the barn version but with ‘access’ to outside space during the daylight hours. There’s a hitch here straight away. Hens are naturally not keen on going out into wide open spaces as they fear aerial predators. The British Lion Code legislation requires vegetation (ground) and outdoor shading or a veranda (for those Tennessee Williams style hens that want to sit rocking in a porch swing smoking a cheroot) but hens prefer overhead covering to their vegetation (so they can feel safe scratching about for insects and dust bathing) so they tend NOT to go out of the pitifully few and small portals (ironically called ‘pop-holes’) that are provided and remain in the barn…so essentially a barn hen with a bigger price tag. Are these eggs producers likely to create safe outside spaces for their hens? No, of course not, it wouldn’t be economically viable to them I suspect…right? And hens shouldn’t smoke anyway…naughty hens…

Critics further slam (‘slam’ is so tabloid isn’t it?!) these methods by pointing out that the hens spend an inordinate amount of time subsequently jostling with each other inside rather than risk the outside and continue to bully, and even cannibalise, each other (so often have part of their beak removed – not very ‘free’ range is it?) not to mention wading through their own waste products which can lead to ammonia burns. Hmmm…not so good huh?

The ‘Organic’ eggs stamped with the number 0 are the same as Free Range but with legislation governing the soil  and feed. Both these have to be certified as organic to meet the EU and British Lion Code standards. I think it’s telling that the organic standards are the EU stipulated ones (although be aware that many other countries in the EU have yet to comply with the EU laws governing caged hens so…) but the Lion Code people add a further stipulation, rather smugly I feel, ordering the ‘pop-holes’ for organic hens be larger. But this is admitting that the other hens are having to ‘pop’ through an inadequate hole isn’t it?! Oooh we’ve made their access to the outside world, fresh air, sunlight and chance to display natural habits (and the smoking veranda no doubt) bigger! Aren’t we just the nicest? Don’t you just love us now? And you don’t really mind us charging you more for that either do you? Ahhh thanks mugs…er…we mean, thanks lovely consumers…

Ok sarcasm is the lowest form of wit (but the hardest to master…) and I think you get the point. Is it a scam? Are we being jipped? Incidentally, I like the fact that the organic eggs pictured above say ‘eggs of different sizes’. Naturally hens lay different sized eggs and usually never the ‘large’ variety unless forced…the size (in this case) does not matter. Large eggs are only used in recipes as a failsafe and a medium, more naturally sized egg (at least for the hens ‘vent’ – don’t get a visual), is perfectly adequate. Think on…anyhoo I digress…

Also – farm shop eggs and farmer’s markets don’t have to be stamped as they operate outside the British Lion Code system so check with them that they are not just caged hens.

Only a small percent of eggs come from a barn or organic system in this country the majority being ‘colony’ ‘enriched cages’ and ‘free range’. Half the eggs produced in this country come from the caged systems. The supporters of ‘colony’ eggs (enriched cages) will talk of the better stability for the hen and that cages allow for their waste to be carried away and how they can control all the elements and create a consistent product, even boasting that the yolks are naturally coloured (from Maize) BUT isn’t it the unsettling nature of the system that means we should choose the eggs from the freer, less ‘treated’, less stressed hens? And some ‘experts’ argue that the nutritional value between caged soya etc fed hens and organic is marginal. But this is like eating fortified flour or cereals – the natural version of a vitamin is the best and a synthesised version is an isolated fake one that has MUCH less benefit. DO NOT be fooled! Vitamins and minerals work in groups and with a natural synergy, they depend upon each other in fact! I almost ‘shouted’ that last bit…I’m getting over excitable in my old age…

So you could argue that none of this is ideal. There is clearly room for improvement all round and in every system of egg production, but until that happens I’d say avoid caged hen products as much as possible, don’t you think? The price difference for better quality and more humanely produced eggs is around 25% more but even at this slightly higher price they are an excellent source of high quality protein (again, you get out of the egg what has been put into it…good or bad) and much cheaper than most other sources like meat – and worth it – especially as both the health of the hen and your health are at stake.

Eggs…part 2: the battery farmed hen…

Firstly, lets remind ourselves that hen’s would naturally place themselves into hierarchical flocks (hence ‘pecking order’), forage for food on the ground around them (they are omnivorous and eat insects, seeds, plants etc), lay eggs in a nest, flap their wings, ‘bathe’ in dust and dirt, and perch. So, let’s consider the various wording and labels on eggs in the supermarket, and where the eggs we are buying fit into the spectrum from as near to natural as possible through to the force farmed, mass produced versions.
Under EU law the egg boxes must clearly declare how the hens are kept and each egg must be stamped with a code that further reveals the origin and method of feeding. This handy diagram from the website helps us decipher the code:
Lets look at this from left to right. According to the official website:
‘The British Lion mark denotes eggs produced to a stringent Code of Practice incorporating the latest research and advice on Salmonella and eggs from scientists and vets. British Lion eggs account for more than 85% of UK egg production. The Lion Quality mark, which is a registered trademark, can only be used by subscribers to the British Egg Industry Council on eggs which have been produced in accordance with UK and EU law and the Lion Quality Code of Practice. The Lion Code of Practice is monitored by an independent agency in accordance with the EN 45011 standard. Farms and packing stations are regularly audited, including unannounced audits.’
But does the Red Lion stamped on the egg really mean anything of any actual importance? In 1988 when Edwina Curry announced in cavalier fashion that most of the country’s eggs were contaminated with salmonella, the sale of eggs plummeted and the poor outspoken dear was forced to resign. Let’s not let the personalities overshadow the facts. There was indeed a severe and dangerous problem with salmonella in eggs at the time and the Lion Quality Code of Practice and associated branding came in to attempt to rectify the loss of faith in the egg industry. This voluntary code is subscribed to by egg producers to show their hens are vaccinated against salmonella, and the eggs come with a ‘best before’ date for added assurance to us punters. Incidentally, many small scale, local, free range/organic places don’t vaccinate and claim, with some good sense, that their eggs are not from hens ever exposed to the deadly bacteria and not living in an environment where they are remotely likely to be exposed.
Ok, so that’s a plus point (ish) but what about the quality of the hen’s life and environment? Again I specifically ask this as these factors directly affect the egg and its nutritional value. Maybe like me you associate words like ‘free-range’ with open fields and no chemical enhancements, and make necessary assumptions, with no available further indications, of what ‘barn raised’, ‘colony raised’ and ‘organic’ actually mean. Incidentally, wording like ‘farm assured’ and ‘farm fresh’ mean bog all, so try to ignore these and focus in on the facts.
Just to the right of the stamped Red Lion is a number, each indicating the farming method:
0 – organic
1 – free-range
2 – barn
3 – caged
Let’s start with ‘caged’:
Clearly using the number ‘3’ looks less grim and off putting than using the word ‘caged’. This refers to battery cages, the original types which were banned only as recently as 2012 throughout the EU, and now replaced with so-called ‘enriched’ cages. Bizarrely it took years to get these first cages banned. With an average of four hens in each cage each hen had no more than a space the size of an A4 piece of paper to stand in and it could only just stand upright. The wire cages were stacked high upon each other with up to 100,000 hens reported in the largest factories. The cages pulled their feathers out and rubbed their skin raw and unable to expression any natural movement they attacked each other and many suffered broken bones and wings. Their beaks were trimmed to prevent them hurting or even cannibalising each other and they were left in artificial light with endless food so they just existed to lay eggs.
Enriched cages increase the size of the area the hen has to ‘live’ in (by about a postcard size per bird) and include perches (a small rail) and nesting boxes (well, one) – which means the hens will compete for access to them (remember the ‘pecking order’) – and the dominant birds will win. There’s a miniscule  place to scratch their claws and generally express at least some of their natural instincts…well that’s the theory. However, don’t be fooled, the hens still cannot flap their wings and exercise or forage and still die young suffering from physical deterioration due to lack of freedom and space. There is still no daylight or fresh air and everything in their environment is controlled and artificial. De-beaking is still practised to protect the hens from hurting and cannibalising each other – yes they are that stressed and frustrated. The deafening noise and stench must be flooring in themselves. It’s still shameful intensive battery farming however you dress it. Most are passed their producing maximum within 18 months but they could ordinarily live to around 10 years old and produce eggs for a majority of their lives in different amounts.
THEN as a final degradation, now that the hen is considered knackered she is dipped in a weakly electrified vat of water to stun her and then hung upside down past an electric saw and slaughtered by decapitation…
Unless an ingredient list specifically states otherwise, the eggs contained in that sandwich you had for lunch, your children’s school dinners, any and all the prepared and processed foods you buy (which you shouldn’t be anyway, right?!?) will be from caged birds.
A word about yolk colour. Lots of us look for a nice plump golden yellow yolk and immediately think of healthy sunshine and free range hens. However, battery hens (and many others besides) are endlessly fed on grain and soya and some form of colourant is used to ensure the yolk you expect. A controversial synthetic additive called canthaxanthin is used often and where it is not a derivative of citrus peel is added. Obviously, the egg is as healthy as the food that helped form it, and this colour enhancement is of no nutritional value and is a con.
Finally, before we explore the alternatives, need I remind you to ask yourself where all the male chicks go? Useless to the egg laying industry do you think they are left to grow and used for some effective purpose or do you think they are disposed of? I looked into it and it was horrific. I’ll just tell you there was a conveyor belt and an electric mincer…it’s another black mark against humanity…
So what are our options…? In the next part we will look at ‘barn’, ‘free-range’, and ‘organic’.