Farm to Fork: Why should you buy free range eggs (and should we all turn vegan)?

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I live so close to my supermarket that it pretty much functions like an extended fridge. Its right across the road and drawn in by its orange glow the vast majority of the local population are shopping in its aisles. All very convenient, but I wonderhow many of us are really considering where the food came from before it ended up so neatly stacked on the shelves? I must confess that although I like to think I have a faint conscience when I shop I am very under educated about the food supply chain and was not giving deep consideration as to what I popped in my trolley. That was until one day staring down at a bare pale whole chicken smothered in tight cellophane I realised how bizarre it looked, how unnatural. It dawned on me that I really didn’t know where it came from, that I and many others are blindly trusting our food retailers to supply us with goods we not only enjoy but can be proud of buying from an ethical standpoint.

So I’ve decided to write a series of little investigations called “Farm to Fork” presenting the facts of supermarket supply to ultimately conclude if I can still happily trot over the road for my goods or if I should really be a bit more considered in my approach to stuffing my face. To start off i’m going to cover eggs, since I eat over 15 eggs every week its seems a natural place to begin. 

Why should you buy free range eggs? Well, there are four types of eggs that you may find at your local shop:

1. Caged eggs
Usually the cheapest eggs available and often bought in bulk, caged eggs represent over 40% of UK egg sales. Have you ever seen one of those horrendous You tube videos with chickens crammed in row after row of dark dirty cages? Well thats pretty much where all caged eggs used to come from often known as battery farming. Luckily for our feathered friends these “old-style” chicken farms were banned by EU legislation three years ago and a new type of hen home was developed known as the “furnished cage”. That name literally cracks me up like its a chicken estate agent came up with an advert for a really swanky newly developed top of the range furnished………cage. Lets be clear its still very much a cage. Furnished cages have all kinds of detailed specs but some of the main features chickens can expect are:

-600cm square of usable area per chicken. This is roughly equivalent to 1 and a bit times the area of a typical laptop screen.
-A small scratch mat for them to trip their claws
-A nesting area to promote “natural behaviour”

The response to this new cage in the UK was predictably mixed. According to some the hens took well to the new boxes with 95% of eggs being laid in the specially designated new nesting area. In addition there was evidence that hens from enriched cages even had lower stress levels than those on free range farms. However, the lower stress levels could be attributed to the fact that a more open free range environment is much harder to control against foxes and other threats that stress chickens out. Given that hens require around 2000 cm square to flap their wings in my opinion these cages do not offer anything close to a natural quality of life for the hens.

2. Barn eggs
Barn eggs take up a small percentage of the UK market although it should be noted that although Sainsbury’s do not sell any caged eggs their basics eggs range is from barn hens. For barn hens life looks a bit better, they have a lot more freedom of movement as they are able to move around the barn and make perches at different levels. However as the infographic below demonstrates they actually barely get more room per bird than if they were in a caged system.

3. Free range eggs
Personally I didn’t realise how much better free range was in terms of space than the more intensive methods. Free range chickens are kept inside usually in barns for a significant amount of time but most importantly for at least half their lifetime free range chickens get access to open air areas with a whole 1m squared per bird of space. Literally if you were a barn chicken that moved to free range you would LOVE IT. All that space, you could spin around with your wings out and jump about and do star jumps. It would be the best.

4. Organic eggs
Chickens aren’t plants! So how can a chickens egg be “organic”? Well a lot is to do with what the chicken is fed. When I was in Japan I saw dead chickens fed  to live chickens, lets just say that might not meet the organic standards. Organic chickens must be raised on organic feed and have access to the outdoors to a similar extent as free range chickens. Their living conditions must meet strict standards for animal welfare.

Ok, but what does this all mean for us the consumers? Well its simple isn’t it, just buy free range/organic and be on your way. WRONG, like most things its not that easy. Firstly free range eggs are more expensive but more importantly although we have control over the whole eggs we buy, when purchasing things like cakes, custards, ice cream etc. we could be unwittingly guzzling caged eggs! I really did not realise this before and let me tell you TONNES of foods have egg as an ingredient so it really is important to check the label and if it doesn’t say “free range” then it most likely is not. Lots of my favourite brands only use free range (Hellmans is one thank god, can’t live without my mayo) but I was also disappointed to see that many others do not guarantee free range ingredients.

The major supermarkets egg offerings can be summarised as follows

 

Whole eggs

Pre prepared meals

Marks and Spencer

Free range only

Free range only

Waitrose

Free range only

Free range only

Sainsburys

Barn / Free range

Can be caged

Tesco

Cage/ Free range

Can be caged

Asda

Cage/ Free range

Can be caged

Lastly although I am definitely behind free range I would like to finish off by offering a different perspective which is about food sustainability. The thought of buying local and small scale produce is very popular but with world population expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 is it sustainable? Buying high animal welfare food promotes less intensive farming methods which do not maximise the possibilities of the land they take up. Is there a point at which human need for sustenance outweighs animal welfare? Should we all just turn vegan? Clearly these are complicated issues and I would love to hear your thoughts.

Useful links
Guide to buying free range

RSPCA hen welfare

DEFRA egg marketing standards

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One thought on “Farm to Fork: Why should you buy free range eggs (and should we all turn vegan)?

  1. Pingback: Farm to Fork: Is your Spaghetti Bolognese killing the planet? - Truly Scrumptious Blog

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