Do you really know the difference between the egg labels? Organic, free range, cage free…along with images of hens in fields (and even a fake farm name thrown in), it’s all pretty perplexing. Food labelling should be simple and yet in reality it’s anything but – making it even more difficult to guarantee whether animals have been raised in the higher welfare system you expect. To save you from sinking in the murky world that is egg labelling, here’s our handy guide to crack what they mean, what to look out for, and what are the most ethical eggs you can buy.
Egg labels decoded
What is an organic egg?
Under Soil Association standards, organically reared hens offer the highest potential standards of animal welfare. Organic eggs must be laid by completely free-range hens and must be able to behave naturally. Organically grown chickens also cannot be given hormones, (which make them grow more quickly) and cannot routinely be given antibiotics.
This means they live in smaller flocks, enjoy better access to the outdoors and more space in their houses than non-organic chickens. Each organic hen is allowed a minimum of 10 square metres of outside space. In the UK, most hens bred for laying eggs have part of their beaks removed with an infra-red beam to reduce the risk of injuries in flocks from feather pecking. This process is called beak-tipping or trimming. The only way to guarantee your eggs have not been laid by beak-trimmed hens is to buy those certified organic by the Soil Association.
Egg-laying hens ruling the roost with farmer Rowie at Purton House Organics in Wiltshire.
What is a free-range egg?
According to Compassion in World Farming, about 50% of all eggs produced in the UK are free-range, compared to 3% that are organic. Free range hens have unlimited daytime access to runs that have vegetation, and at least four square metres of outside space per bird. At night, free-range hens are housed in barns furnished with bedding and perches, with nine hens allowed per square meter of inside space. However, there is no limit on flock size. This is a fact that is well known to be exploited by some producers and although free range hens have access to the outdoors they don’t always use it.
Beak trimming is commonly practised and the routine use of antibiotics is permissible, even it if is low level. Welfare standards can vary wildly between different free-range producers, so the best thing is to know exactly where your eggs are coming from and make sure it’s from a source you trust.
Organic versus free range eggs
Organic farms certified by the Soil Association have to provide more pop holes (exits from the hen house) for egg laying hens than ‘free range’ farms do. This is to ensure access to pasture is not restricted. All organic birds are fed on GM-free feed whereas with eggs laid by ‘free-range’ hens there are no requirements regarding the GM status of feed.
A happy hen amongst the grass and clover at Fosse Meadows Farm in Leicestershire.
What is a cage-free egg?
Cramped battery cages were prohibited in the EU in January 2012. However, modified cages, also referred to as ‘enriched’, ‘furnished’ or ‘colony’ cages, remain legal, and animal welfare experts agree that these new cages are not a great deal better. These hens lose feathers through stress and die at an earlier age. After all, a cage is still a cage.
The birds in ‘enriched’ cages have slightly more room to move than in conventional battery cages but their ability to behave naturally remains severely restricted – so much so that often they can barely move or stretch their wings. Beak trimming is routine and these hens do not have access to outdoor pasture. A cage-free egg is one that has been produced in accordance with the welfare methods set out for free-range eggs or organic eggs. Eggs not produced in either of these ways are automatically classed as eggs from caged hens.
What are the most ethical eggs you can buy?
In an eggshell, ones from an organic farm or a free-range farm you can trust. The organic eggs laid by hens at Purton House Organics in Wiltshire are produced in accordance to organic standards set out by the Soil Association. Farmer Rowie’s small flock roam freely around grassy pastures and spend most of their time outside.
Farmers Nick and Jacob at Fosse Meadows Farm produce beautiful slow-grown chickens. Their chickens and eggs are free-range and non-organic and this is down to the non-organic feed and (straw) bedding they use, (which isn’t from an organic farm). They explain:
“The reason why we don’t give them organic feed is due to the fact we grow our birds two weeks longer than organic producers. Basically the longer you grow them the more they consume and the bigger they get – so it’s not economically viable to grow them to that length and feed them organic feed. Our farming practices are the same as organic in every other way that we have small flocks, moveable sheds, and we don’t put any fertilisers or pesticides onto the grass. We don’t put any antibiotics into their feeds unless prescribed by a vet for welfare reasons (which is very very rare).”
This post was originally published in August 2016 and has since been updated.