Commodities & Futures: Foul play alleged in the great egg controversy

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THE ARCHERS, the heroes of radio's longest-running soap opera, have sparked a controversy in the real-life egg industry.

Egg producers were up in arms last week over characters in the programme who criticised battery hen farming while idealising free range production.

In one scene listeners heard a battery farmer, Mike Tucker, remark casually that there were 'usually a couple of dead 'uns' among the droppings which got swept out with the waste.

The programme also said that free range eggs would be cheaper if more people bought them. Keith Pulman, secretary of the UK Egg Producers' Association, says this is not true because free range production costs are higher.

'Free range eggs are fine if you are talking about six hens and a cockerel running about in an orchard,' he said yesterday. 'But big producers keep whole herds of the birds together. We do not accept that there is a welfare problem in battery cages.'

Battery farming is not ideal. But if you feel a surge of moral well-being as you reach for the free range eggs on the supermarket shelf you can forget it.

Even animal welfare organisations do not come down in favour of any particular system.

About 85 per cent of UK egg production comes from battery farms. Depending on hens and space per cage, the hens may have no room to move and inadequate air, leading to health problems.

About 10 per cent of production comes from free range farms, and 5 per cent from 'perch barns'.

But free range farms can be as crowded as battery cages and have a high mortality rate as well.

To be categorised as free range, the barn only has to have continuous daytime access to open-air runs. In the worst case, an opening could be so small and the number of hens in the barn so great that most birds would never realise they had a way out.

Perch barns have similar drawbacks. They can be dimly lit and have no litter for scratching or dustbaths (both healthy chicken habits) and only 400 square centimetres to call their own.

As in free range buildings, close contact with so many other birds can lead to mass panics, piling up and smothering, feather pecking and cannibalism.

A member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, Ruth Harrison, wrote last year that most alternatives to cages were unacceptable because producers tried to maximise profits and cram in as many birds as possible.

Supermarkets put a high premium on free range eggs. A leading retailer on Friday quoted pounds 1.59 for a dozen number three free range eggs and 89p for a dozen battery eggs the same size.

The Office of Fair Trading was asked by producers late last year to look into retail egg pricing to see if supermarkets were making excessive profits. But it found no anti-competitive practices.

The Archers were evenhanded in their final assessment. An egg-tasting session at their local pub resulted in most characters not being able to taste the difference.