Like all animal welfare topics, this is controversial territory. But, for anyone who cares about their food be it hedonistically or ethically, the conditions the hen that laid your breakfast egg lives in are important.
First, some egg definitions:
Chickens have indoor as well as outdoor space, and can move between the two. Chicken-to-space ratios vary country by country. In the EU for a farm to be classified as free range there must be at least 4m² per hen.
= 64 sheets of A4 paper per hen.
There is typically no difference between organic egg farming and free range farming, other than that the chicken feed must be organically grown, and chickens are not fed growth-promoting antibiotics. Eggs are also not chemical treated, and colorants are not injected to alter the yolk.
= 64 sheets of A4 paper per hen + fancier feed and less drugs.
The hens are kept in a barn; this means a space with multiple levels where they have the opportunity to move between different perches and have nest boxes. However, there is typically one next box per 7 hens, and there can be up to 9 hens per 1m².
= 1 ¾ sheets of A4 paper per hen.
A battery farm is a factory-style egg production line. Chickens are kept in very small metal cages, typically with several chickens kept tightly packed into each cage. The hens sit on a sloped floor made of netting which allows for eggs roll down while excrement drops through the mesh. Eggs land on a conveyor belt which takes them on to be processed and packaged. As of January 2012 the EU has made a new legislation raising the minimum space per chicken in a battery cage to 750 cm².
= less than 1 A4 sheet of paper per hen.
I am not going to go into details on the conditions these chickens live in, as a basic search on google will provide enough information to anyone who hasn’t heard it already. It is also worth noting that the space a chicken has does not alone tell us about its quality of life, and free range farming is often very heavily criticised by animal welfare groups.
You’ve probably seen the space chickens have referred to in terms of A4 paper sheets many times, which is the most common way in its described to help people imagine it. But it occurred to me as I was looking these areas up that most city dwelling people probably haven’t spent any time around chickens which are not dead, plucked, and wrapped in cellophane on supermarket shelves. You can try and put your chicken on a sheet of A4 paper next time, before you cook it, to get an idea, but then remember to imagine it alive, with a head, much bigger and poofier with its feathers, and with long legs sticking out at the bottom… oh sorry, did I just put you off your dinner? But this is the essence of what I think is wrong with farming techniques and the food industry – people do not imagine the animal as it was before it came neatly packaged to their local store. We often just don’t connect the two, so I can ramble on about the poor hen sitting in a little box all her life without room to move until the chickens come home, but however pity-inspiring that is, when it comes to buying your next box of eggs most people won’t connect the dots between how bad they felt when they thought about the hen and the product they are choosing, but will pick the lowest priced option.
What is the price difference? Tesco, a leading UK supermarket, sells a box of 6 free range eggs for £1.68, and battery eggs for £1.46. The average difference per egg between free range and battery is about 4p. Even in recession times with purses tight, this hardly seems like a big enough divide to justify taking the cheaper option and funding the battery farm.
But consumer habits are changing. This year looks set to be the first in UK during which people buy as many free range eggs as battery farmed ones, showing that more and more people do care about this issue. Unfortunately, connecting the egg to the chicken is less of a leap than connecting your mayonnaise, cakes, pasta and other products with it – the vast majority of which will contain eggs that have come from battery farms. Then think of all the times you eat out, and how much of that food contained eggs; very unlikely to have been anything but the cheapest, meaning battery farmed also. A 4p difference isn’t very large to an individual, but to a company buying on a large scale and factoring that into their profit margin it becomes far more of an issue. Cutting battery eggs out of your diet entirely is possible, but not easy. It requires a lot of attention devoted to what you eat and where it comes from. It is also makes you difficult to go out with, as you’ll be nearly vegan when it comes to fast or even typical restaurant food.
So why bother? If, unlike me, you don’t get emotional about the lives of chickens, is cutting out battery eggs worth the hassle? If you care about the flavour of your food then yes, it is.
Eggs can be very different. They can have different colours of shell and yolk, and different consistencies. These factors depend on the breed of chicken, time of year, food the chicken ate etc. Unless you buy organic, mass produced eggs will have been dyed to look generic. Even if you don’t care about the dye in your food, I would certainly care about the enforced uniformity taking way part of the joy and fun of finding what’s inside when you crack your egg.
Taste is of course very subjective, and in taste tests some studies get results showing people can tell battery from free range, but then other studies don’t find a difference. However, battery farmed eggs do have different nutritional properties to those from chickens that had the opportunity to move around and spend time outdoors. I came across one US based study from 2007 which found that hens raised on a pasture produced eggs which compared to battery eggs have:
Less cholesterol and saturated fats.
More Vitamins E & A, and more omega-3 fatty acids.
Basically, pasture eggs are healthier.
But this really shouldn’t be surprising. The battery chicken is fed a uniform diet of generic feed, and gets no exercise. The pasture chicken can scratch and dig, and eat its natural diet of insects and grubs, as well as grain. It can also get exercise. If the hen is better nourished and has less of a body fat ratio, then it is just common sense that her eggs will reflect that as nutrients from the mother hen pass into the egg.
If you have ever been to a private farm and bought eggs that came from a small flock of chickens kept in old-fashioned farm conditions – with lots of space to run around all day, and a coop to settle in at night – you will know that the conditions the chicken lives in have a very big impact on egg flavour. The free-range to battery difference might not be huge, because both conditions are still of the mass-production style and neither kind of chicken is really living the kind of life it evolved to live. Sadly, there is no egg you can buy in a supermarket which comes from chickens that live this sort of life; if you want natural eggs, you will either have to befriend a local farmer who keeps chickens of get some of your own.
Keeping chickens is a lot more fun than it might sound. I’ve spent my life as a deeply ingrained city dweller, but when I was growing up my cousins and I used to get regularly packed off to spend holidays with country relatives. We hated it. All of it, apart from the animals, and the chickens were my favourites. They are flock birds, which means they naturally live in small groups and are highly social. They have a ‘pecking order’ or a hierarchy of chickens within the group. They are inquisitive, and get bored. As omnivores, they are adapted to scratch, dig and peck around looking for just about anything that could be food. They also get bored of their food, and like variety. They are pretty fun to sit around and observe, and you really get to know their individual personalities. I swear they lay nicer eggs for you if they like you.
They are also pretty easy to keep, even in an urban garden. You can get rescue chickens which have come from battery farms, and if looked after will plump out, cheer up, and produce wonderful eggs for you.
For those of us who don’t have gardens to keep chickens in, the choice can be hard; either cut out eggs from your diet completely, or chose the lesser evil and go with free range. Why anyone who has thought about it would keep buying battery eggs is frankly a mystery to me.
The sad moral of the story is that if you want to eat eggs, and egg products, from genuinely happy and healthy chickens, you will have to source the eggs yourself. But if you are buying a box of eggs in the supermarket, free-range is still the far better choice. (And if you see someone reaching for the 4p-cheaper battery eggs, you are definitely entitled to give them a deeply disgusted look)