The poultry state of egg farming

With Easter upon us, JOE GOODMAN talks to farmer’s daughter EMMA SMITH about where our eggs come from

battery farms chicken-little Easter easter bunny eggs free range jeremy paxman jesus organic Sainsbury's university challenge

Easter is upon us again, and with that it is time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the invention of egg-shaped chocolate. Mainly the latter though: I think I was familiar with the Easter bunny before I knew who Jesus was, though I could probably be excused for confusing the two.

I don’t think anyone ever properly explained to me why we eat chocolate eggs at Easter but I imagine it’s something to do with saying thanks to all the chickens who die in battery farms each year. Either way it got me thinking about eggs and the hens that lay them.

The last couple of years, the array of labels and classifications on egg boxes has proliferated to match any Dulux paint chart. Perusing the egg aisle in Sainsbury’s has started to feel less like a weekly shop and more like a picture round on University Challenge. No longer will people ask ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’, when instead we have to struggle with the differences between free range and freedom food, barn bred and organic.

So I talked to my friend Emma, who lives on a farm, about what all these labels mean.

Emma on her farm

1. Caged

As of 2012, all the countries in the European Union have supposedly moved on to what is being called ‘enriched’ cages for egg production. These have enlarged the standard size per bird from about 550 cubic cm up to a total of 750. While this might be seem like a big step-up, it’s probably worth pointing out that this is still a tiny and restricting space into which chicken-little is being caged her entire life.

The biggest priority is cost-efficiency, so farmers are concerned with keeping chicken’s alive and ovulating for as long as possible. The cages have grated bottoms for chickens to perch on instead of solid floors. This means expensive conveyor belts can run below the cages to remove faeces so preventing chickens from contracting diseases and dying prematurely.

Along with faeces, the other thing dropping through these cracks is of course our eggs. Because movement is restricted, hens from battery farms tend to produce larger eggs with a greater calorie content. They taste like broken dreams and shit.

You can’t put him in a box

2. Barn 

Barn eggs are seen as somewhat better than caged eggs yet mortality rates can be far higher. For one thing the ‘barn’ these chickens live in is really just a glorified warehouse, with chickens chucked into a gladiatorial death pit on the floor.

In terms of space, regulations specify a maximum of nine hens per square metre, with one nest per 7 hens. Coming from the conditions of battery farms, the movement these chickens can enjoy might seem like a considerable mark up in quality of life. However, communal living isn’t all it’s quite cracked out to be either.

Instances of violence are common in this system and stressful, overcrowded conditions are thought to be the reason so many chickens in barns become psychotic and attack each other or even themselves.

A bit like living in halls then.

3. Free Range 

Free-range eggs may conjure up pictures of happy hens frolicking through fields, but the reality tends to be much more stark. Free-range regulations stipulate animals must have ‘access’ to the outdoors for at least half their lives. In reality, ‘outdoors’ means a 2.5m area per hen, and often the larger birds will monopolise the land, meaning many will never even set a foot outside. At night, animals are kept in huge cramped warehouses with regulations matching the ones stated above for barn eggs.

A bit like pre-drinks

Mortality rates, however, are often even higher in free-range systems than they are with barn eggs. The limited hours of free-roaming mean hens often compete more frenziedly with one another to maximise their access to sunlight. As a result, death by pecking is not an uncommon cause of death in these ‘bucolic pastures’.

Some farms have opted to trim the beaks off hens to stop them killing each other in this way, but this can often be painful and result in infection as well as preventing natural burrowing behaviours.

4. Organic  

In this country, being an organic hen basically just means being a free-range hen on an organic diet. Access to medication might seem a natural addition for these princes of mass-production, but in fact organic hens are often left to suffer much worse conditions in order to keep their bodies free from chemicals. Oh the irony.

So it’s simple: The markup you are paying for the difference between caged and organic  does not seem to reflect any major improvement in a chicken’s quality of life. The only way to make sure your eggs come from happy homes is to let those hens wander round your garden.

Until then maybe it’s best to stick to chocolate eggs – though Emma’s already threatened to go into the issues surrounding milk, sugar and cacao production…

A fun Easter this one’s gonna be