Jolly Good Egg: the living conditions of chickens

fresh eggs - dippy soldiers anyone?

Eggs.  Chances are that if you eat them, you’ll purchase yours from a supermarket somewhere, and that they originally came from a chicken (as opposed to a duck, goose, quail, or komodo dragon…).  You may or may not be aware that chickens are kept in a range of housing conditions, which, whilst they still produce eggs, means that their quality of life can be varied.   Free range hens typically live 6+ years and lay approx 300 eggs per year.  They prefer somewhere secluded to lay, the provision of dust baths, access to open air and sunlight and a place to scratch and peck for food.  Thankfully there are a few ways to tell if your egg was laid by a chicken in a battery cage, or by one with outdoor space to run round in and a nice duvet at night.  Alright, maybe not a duvet, but a high quality wooden perch instead…

The easiest way to tell is by looking at the codes which should be printed on the egg:

0UK = organic –  fed organic feed (no animal byproducts or GM crops), antibiotics not routinely administered unless during an infectious outbreak.  low stress levels, guaranteed animal welfare standards.
1UK = free range – DEFRA defines this as access to open air runs during daytime for at least half the birds life.
2UK = barn – kept permanently indoors in large enclosed warehouses.
3UK = cage – living quality is poor, with a large amount of birds being kept in cramped conditions.  Developed in the 1930’s and slowly being phased out.

Thankfully by 2012, DEFRA has announced the phasing out of battery cages for hens, the use of battery cages for hens is already illegal in Switzerland.  Egg codes are printed on by registered suppliers, which means that if you buy your eggs from a local person selling on their small amount of surplus, they may not have a code printed on them, (it may be handwritten instead – even those people selling on a market stall can be registered, and include a best before date on their eggs!) and you have only the persons word to say that the hens have free range conditions.  if they come from a local independent farm, try asking if you can go see the birds in their living conditions, or alternatively, think about keeping a chicken or two yourself.  It’s a big decision, and like keeping any animal, needs a lot of thinking about and researching first.  There’s a few links at the bottom of the page to get you started.  I know that some of you keep chickens already, any comments about how easy/difficult it’s been are most welcome.

There are several suppliers which now only supply organic or free range eggs The Happy Egg Co is one of these, owned by Noble Foods it was investigated by Sky News in Oct 2010 for maltreatment of the birds.  Eggs for Soldiers, also owned by Noble Foods, are free range eggs which donate 15p to Help for Heroes for every pack purchased.  Most major supermarkets have their own branded free range and/or organic eggs in different sizes, so there’s plenty of choice.

Try checking under the RSPCA’s Freedom Foods registration, not just for eggs, but other products which suppliers are monitored for the conditions in which the animals are kept.  A supplier must provide them with an environment which meets their needs, not only in terms of space and food, but also psychological requirements.  The RSPCA have an availability guide listing major retailers, of which Sainsbury’s and the Co-op appear to stock the most variety.  There’s a blue and white RSPCA Freedom Food logo which is starting to appear on packaging to denote compliant products.  Another logo to look for on eggs  is the British Lion Quality one, being a crowned red lion.  The lion can be inked on the shell and the box to show that it complies with the British Lion Quality standards.  if you’re really keen to know exactly where your eggs came from, they have a search facility at the top of their main page, allowing you to input the code on your egg to trace it back.  Incidentally, my current eggs from the fridge are labelled 1UK14818, which, according to the site, traces back to a flock of free range chickens owned by Mr Geoff Suddes, on Hill House Farm in Yarm, Yorkshire.  Thanks Geoff.

Now you’re all fired up about eggs and chooks, there’s some further reading:

If you’re inspired to look into keeping chooks for yourself, this is a good article to start with.  This article from Mother Earth News is in the form of a questionnaire of things to consider beforehand.  There’s plenty of help available from the The Poultry Pages, covering all aspects of chook keeping.  The British Hen Welfare Trust is a charity set up specifically to care for and rehome ex-battery hens to provide a better quality of life.  If chooks of your own are not possible, they run a Sponsorship scheme.  Just think, timeshare chooks 🙂

There’s a Good Food Shopping Guide available to download from the Compassion in World Farming website.

Chooks away!

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One thought on “Jolly Good Egg: the living conditions of chickens

  1. I do agree that hens should be treated humanely and given adequate and sanitory conditions in which to move around. I buy organic freerange eggs and trust that they are.
    However, back in the 60s I worked for several months in a chicken research lab where we were breeding white hens to lay brown eggs ( ever wondered why all supermarket eggs are brown? )Well, to cut a long story short, our trial birds were kept in cages, indoors and routinely subjected to blood tests. They were healthy and happy. How do I know? Because when they became unhappy they went off lay. This makes me wonder if some hens really have become so accustomed to cages that they don’t bother anymore. Deep litter conditions and feather loss do inflict stress and hen-pecking. I dislike as much as the next Pagan to see any mistreatment even of the lesser intelligent members of the avine species, but don’t group all egg producers in the same basket. Vote with your pocket and don’t buy the cheapest, even though there is no nutritional difference between brown and white eggs.

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