In search of good eggs

British shoppers say they want free-range, yet battery farming is thriving.
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Egg production is one of the EU's most significant agricultural activities. In Britain, the average person eats 172 eggs a year and the industry is worth an estimated annual £550m.

For the second half of the last century, the move was towards ever more intensive egg production from so-called battery hens. Indeed, 63 per cent of the eggs produced in the UK still come from battery hens.

In recent years, however, concerns over the welfare of hens reared in this manner have led to an increase in more sustainably produced eggs, a move that is reflected by many of the larger egg producers and retailers.

In 1997, Marks & Spencer took the unprecedented step of stocking only free range eggs. Since 2002 this policy has been extended to include eggs used as ingredients in any of its products. It is an admirably ethical stance, albeit one made considerably easier by the firm's policy of only selling its own-brand products, giving it much greater control over their production.

Guy Farrant, food director at Marks & Spencer, says that the decision was in response to customer demand: "It was a direct response to concerns from our customers about laying hen welfare, and a demonstration of our business' passion and commitment to ensuring high standards of animal welfare in the production of all the livestock used for our foods."

To date, Marks & Spencer is the only major food retailer to achieve 100 per cent free range status, but many of the others are moving in the same direction. Waitrose own-brand fresh, chilled and frozen products contain free-range or organic eggs and Selfridges stipulate that all their own-brand products must contain only free range eggs, while the Co-op and Budgens are also working towards this goal.

Sainsbury's has committed to selling only cage-free eggs by 2012, and Leeds-based supermarket group Morrisons has pledged to do the same by 2010.

James Winter, Morrisons' poultry trading manager, says that, "We see animal welfare as an extremely important factor when sourcing our produce. It's something we know our customers care about, as many of them already prefer free range and organic shell eggs."

The UK's two largest supermarkets, however, are more cautious. Neither Tesco nor Asda have made a firm commitment to banning battery eggs. Asda says its principal reason is price, as battery eggs are significantly cheaper than free range or barn eggs. There is undeniably a significant price difference. One of the main reasons – one cited by many of the supermarkets, including Asda – is an inadequate supply of free range eggs. Egg producers themselves are simply not producing enough eggs, meaning that, in the face of rising demand, the price of those that are produced remains high.

This is a real concern for retailers. Some supermarkets have been forced to turn to overseas suppliers in order to satisfy free range demand. The problem for consumers is that overseas non-EU egg producers are not covered by the same legislation as those within the EU, which dictate that all eggs produced in the EU must be stamped "0" for organic, "1" for free range, "2" for barn and "3" for battery. The boxes must also be clearly labelled with farming method.

To try and improve the situation and provide consumers with consistent, credible information on which to base their buying decisions, the RSPCA is campaigning for mandatory labelling for all eggs imported into the EU – both shell eggs, and those used in food products.

An EU Directive setting out minimum requirements for the protection of laying hens should also provide more impetus in the drive to increase supplies of sustainably produced eggs within the EU. It will see conventional battery cages phased out by 2012, to be replaced by enriched battery "furnished" cages and non-cage systems.

Groups such as Compassion in World Farming (CIWFC) acknowledge that the Directive is a step in the right direction, but they say it is only part of the solution. There is widespread concern that on-going pressure from some EU member states and the egg industry between now and 2012 could see the ban of conventional cages delayed, or even dropped completely.

There is also considerable debate as to whether the measures specified in the Directive go far enough. The RSPCA's most recent report expresses concerns that the EU-regulated enriched cages still do not adequately satisfy hens' physical or behavioural requirements, providing just an extra beermat-sized area per hen, and limited perch and scratching facilities. The organisation believes all hens should be kept in properly managed free range or barn conditions, which can provide far higher standards of welfare than cages. Barn conditions allow the hens to roam freely indoors in barns, while free range also allows access to outside space and vegetation through "pop-holes".

Although mandatory labelling exits for shell eggs, eggs used in products such as mayonnaise, ready meals and ice cream are not labelled. This market is increasing at the fastest rate, and relies mainly on battery eggs at present.

This means that for the consumer, the choice between free range and battery eggs will remain a confusing one for the foreseeable future.