There is a lot of confusion surrounding egg labeling. Woodland, barn, free-range… what do they really mean? We want to make sure the eggs we buy are good for us, the hens and the planet so we investigated this a little further.
DEFRA (Department of Environment, farming and rural affairs) gives a minimum standard for the 4 major categories of eggs, cage, barn, free-range and organic. Added to this are somewhat vague terms like woodland and more rigorous standards like demeter.
A cage system consists of tiers of cages. The cages have sloping mesh floors so that the eggs roll forward, out of the reach of the birds to await collection. For each cage there must be at least 10cm of feed trough/bird and at least two drinkers/cage or 10cm of drinking trough/bird. Droppings pass through the mesh floors onto boards, belts or into a pit to await removal. A minimum of 550cm squared per bird is required in standard cages.
This is equalivalent to 4 chickens per metre. Though the UK is working toward a phase out of conventional cages, the new standards are only a slight improvement.
The barn system has a series of perches and feeders at different levels. The maximum stocking density is 9 birds per square metre and there must be at least 250cm square of litter area/bird. Perches for the birds must be installed to allow 15 cm of perch per hen. There must be at least 10cm of feeder/bird and at least one drinker/10 birds. There must be one nest for every 7 birds or 1 square metre of nest space for every 120 birds. Water and feeding troughs are raised so that the food is not scattered.
In free-range systems, the birds are housed as described in the barn system above. In addition birds must have continuous daytime access to open runs which are mainly covered with vegetation and with a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare.
The term ‘Woodland’ is not an official standard, and has been used by many egg producers as a mere marketing ploy. There is no legal requirement that the hens were within miles of a tree. That is not to say some Woodland eggs are genuine and provide a more natural habitat, merely that it is not guaranteed.
No system other than organic makes any requirement to the quality of the food of the hens. In many systems it is not profitable to keep the hens over the winter when the laying slows, so considerations for health only span for an 8 month period. Food and medicines that would have long term, harmful effects are used without consideration.
Organic systems are similar to those of free range however the guidelines for the birds and their feed are more stringent. The pullets must be raised by certified organic production methods from birth. The layers are required to have outdoor access all year round, or be fed sprouted grains for the period when indoors and all feed must be certified organic. No antibiotics or meat by-products are allowed in the feed and each bird is required to have 2 square feet of floor space.
Even in organics, although the feed must be organic (meaning non-GM among other things) it can come from any part of the world and does not necessarily have to be closely related to a chickens natural diet. This should include a range of bugs and insects, but even in organics this does not come into play.
This is the biodynamic standard, the most rigorous standard in the UK. It requires that the farm is diverse, chemical and pesticide free, with much lower stocking densities and higher feed standards than any other standard. The difference in biodynamic farming is the level of attention the farmer gives to each element of the land, and the understanding that farming is a complex relationship between all the plants, animals, people and other influences, so all must be considered to do it well.
Labeling is a tricky business, and complicated further by foreign imports with more relaxed standards to ours. However, perhaps all these standards just make us complacent. If you can talk to the producer you can get a feeling for how much they care, and this is perhaps the most important factor.
And you can taste the difference. The taste will tell you how nutritious it is. A super tasty egg can fill you up for longer than 4 average eggs. So are those nasty caged eggs really cheaper?
Don’t miss our introductory offer: Dom from Oaklands Park is offering his amazing biodynamic eggs at only £1.35 per half dozen!!!