Are you sure you only eat free range eggs?

Updated on 30 March 2015 | 0 Comments

Matt Brady uncovers the 'secret' eggs from caged hens used in everyday foods, and explores the different ways chickens are treated here.

Cake ingredients

For those of you who strongly believe in choosing free range products, it’s important to check the labels of foods containing eggs, says the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT)

It produces a handy little leaflet called A Tale of Two Cakes. Not one cake, but two. Double the deliciousness, right?

Well no, actually. The leaflet highlights the fact that many of the pre-prepared cakes found in UK supermarkets are still made with eggs from battery hens kept outside the EU. That's because it's far cheaper for manufacturers to use those eggs over their 'barn', 'free range' or 'organic' counterparts (see below for definitions).

Pasta, cakes, biscuits and mayonnaise also often contain 'secret' caged hen eggs. If it says ‘free range eggs’ in the ingredient list, you’re in the clear.

But if it doesn’t specify it will almost certainly contain eggs from caged hens, according to the BHWT. For example, a Waitrose-own Victoria sponge cake does list 'pasteurised free range egg' in its ingredients, but a McVitie's Jamaica ginger cake doesn't expand on 'dried whole egg'.

Although 'battery' cages are now illegal throughout the EU, ‘enriched’ cages are still legal.

Five types of chicken and egg

Here are some quick definitions to differentiate the ways hens are farmed. Note that all British Lion-stamped eggs come from hens that were kept to at least the minimum legal standards of welfare. 

Battery cage – hens kept in tiny 'barren' cages which restrict all of their natural behaviour. Illegal in the EU.

Enriched cage – produces 'colony' eggs. Hens are kept in larger cages that allow them to move around, scratch, nest and roost. The BHWT's Marie Tippet says that these are slightly better, but the cage “does not offer the same freedoms as those birds given access to outdoors.” And the RSPCA say that they “don’t believe they meet the full needs of the birds.” These cages are legal in the EU. 

Barn – chickens are kept in a barn. A maximum density of nine chickens per square metre is allowed, among other rules. They can move freely around the entire barn.

Free range – the birds must have unlimited access (during daylight hours) to outside runs which are mainly covered with vegetation. A maximum of 2,500 birds per hectare is allowed.

Organic – organic eggs always come from free range hens. The hens must be reared and kept on organic lands, and fed organic foods. The maximum flock size allowed is 3,000.

Can you sell battery eggs in the UK? 

The UK Government enforces a 'robust' checking procedure (click to download a PDF about their strategy) to ensure that imported eggs comply with the EU ban on eggs from battery hens. The option of a total ban on imported eggs was dismissed due to the “significant legal and financial complications” that such a decision would bring.

If eggs are “found to be from an illegal system, they will be prevented from being marketed as class A eggs and would be sent for processing (i.e. be treated as class B eggs) — if indeed any UK processors would accept them.” 

Free Range Friday
Chick and egg

The BHWT, which counts Jamie Oliver and Antony Worrall Thompson among its many patrons, has launched a new campaign called 'Free Range Friday' in an attempt to raise awareness about the continuing, 'hidden' use of battery eggs. Every Friday, or so the idea goes, we should all make an effort to check the labels of everything we buy and eat, thus ensuring that we don't consume any non-free range eggs.

Marie explains: “Free Range Friday is designed to encourage consumers to consider the food they eat, especially processed food products which often contain eggs or egg derivatives laid by hens in cages (from anywhere in the world).”

Simple enough. Check your labels and avoid caged eggs in any form. You could also go a step further by holding an event to encourage your local community to do the same. The money raised by these Free Range Friday events is used by the BHWT to support future work.

Chicken eggs

Sainsbury’s supermarket went cage-free in their ingredients in 2012, following their ban on battery eggs in 2009. So now none of their own-brand products, irrespective of price, contain caged eggs. At the time, they said that it would affect 1,600 products and 3,000,000 hens. A worthy step in the right direction, although Sainsbury's still use eggs from chickens kept exclusively in barns with no access to the outdoors.

Sainsbury’s spokesperson Josephine Simmons says that, for now, the supermarket “has no plans to replace barn eggs with free range… our basics barn eggs come from Freedom Food-approved farms, which means that our hens live on farms that meet strict RSPCA welfare standards.” This means that the chickens have the freedom to engage in natural behaviours like scratching, nesting and perching.

Asda, on the other hand, do still stock caged eggs. Though interestingly, large caged eggs actually cost just 22p less than their large free range counterparts. I wonder if that price difference is really enough to draw people away from the free range product. Asda didn't get back to me on whether or not they have plans to remove caged eggs from shelves.

Demand for free range 

At the minute, it seems that demand is roughly 50:50 for free range and caged eggs, as demonstrated by this graph kindly supplied by the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA).

The numbers on the vertical axis represent cases per year (working in millions, with the top number equalling 30 million) and there are 360 eggs in each case.

Egg demand graph

Interestingly, barn eggs make a relatively tiny contribution to the overall total of eggs produced, and seem to be falling in number, while intensive (i.e. enriched cage) eggs are on the rise again.

Sara Howlett from the RSPCA commented: "'Alternative' (i.e. cage-free) systems such as barn and free range offer hens a freedom of choice and movement that caged systems cannot offer, even when these are 'enriched'.

"Access to the outdoors in free range systems brings with it the benefits of fresh air, extra space and the ability to forage for insects and vegetation, [but also brings with it] the risk of predation and disease.

"By embracing well-managed barn as well as free range systems... we can ensure higher welfare egg supply without the land use pressure often cited in the case in favour of caged production.”

So by swapping cages for barns, welfare could be improved significantly. Although it still wouldn't be the best deal for the hens.  

The ideal situation?

Black and white chicken

The BHWT's Marie Tippet suggests that, ideally, farmers would have “well-managed, small flocks of free range hens where stockmanship is good”. The size of free range flocks varies a lot, so it’s important that husbandry is of high quality. The Soil Association has, in the past, been critical of non-organic, commercial free range conditions as they point out that flocks can be very large, compromising their welfare and, potentially, their health. Plus they say that conditions are not put in place to actually encourage birds to go outside, so they stay inside. There’s also the concern of beak-trimming in large flocks to prevent birds from hurting each other.

There’s an obviously dilemma here – since beak trimming is termed a ‘mutilation’, it is immediately emotive. But the BHWT supports the UK egg industry’s wish to retain the right to beak trim “in order to prevent wide scale welfare concerns across UK flocks”.

If demand for free range grows, and flocks are well-managed, perhaps the practice could be eliminated. But for now, Marie would like to see flock management improved in terms of "stocking density, diet, light intensity, range enrichment and human contact, all of which have their part to play in maintaining a healthy, happy flock.”

Do you check ingredient lists to see if eggs used are free range? Let us know your thoughts on this issue in the Comments box below.

Lovefood visited a happy egg farm last year - read about our trip here.

Here are some great egg recipes for you to enjoy:

Egg, ham and chips

Eggs benedict

Egg fried rice

Posh poached eggs

Mushroom scotch eggs


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