A hen’s life or: Why I don’t buy cheap eggs

Norwegian hen

If you stand in front of the  storage rack with eggs in the supermarket, have you ever noticed how big the variety of prices and producing companies is? Well, an egg is an egg, so why do some eggs cost twice as much as others? You probably know the reason: it’s the way they are produced.

Firstly, an egg is always produced the same way – laid by a hen. You can’t really speed this up, or make a hen lay much more eggs, but you can make a difference in how you keep the hens – sadly, you could say.

Although probably everyone has at least once seen footage from battery hens stuffed in hundreds of tiny cages in huge production halls, many of us still choose the cheapest option in the supermarket – pushing aside the disturbing pictures of those farms.

But during the past decade, more and more people are becoming aware of this problem. Figures from The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) show, that during 2010, about half of the 34 million egg laying hens in the UK were kept in cages – 72 per cent less then in 2000. More and more consumers choose to buy eggs that were produced in a more hen-friendly environment, and the producers adapt to those changes in demand with a higher supply of alternatively produced eggs, such as barn of free-range.

But how ‘better’ are barn or free-range eggs?

battery farmed eggsFirst about the cheap ones, sometimes also called ‘farm fresh eggs’: Thinking of a farm as the cute little barnyard in the rural area, with cows on the fields and a cock on the dung pile – sorry, not true. A ‘farm’ in this context is a factory farm, in which each hen has just about the space of the size of a A4 paper – smaller then the laptop I am typing this on. And ‘fresh’ simply means that the egg is less then 21 days old. The truth is hard.

Barn eggs are at least a little better. Indeed, a barn again is not what you might think – but another industrial unit in which thousands of hens. The only benefit is that the hens have the access to different levels, pericng space and seperate nesting boxes. The space per hen increases to almost 2 sheets of A4 – but still ridiculously small.

So what about free range eggs? It’s still not as idylic as you might think – it is still a huge industrial building, but with access to a fenced area outside the building. The space is calculated so that every hen has aabout 64 sheets of A4, but most of the time the hens only use a small amount of this. Hens are so called flocking birds, they stick together in the free range area and so still thousands of hens are packed of little space – but they can spread over the area if they want to.

organic free rangeFinally, organic eggs are produced in pretty much the same conditions as free range eggs, the only difference is the food: The hens are fed just organic food and must not be given antibiotics.

But of course – giving hens more space makes the production of the eggs more expensive, and organic foods adds even more to the price. This is also the reason why we often eat battery eggs without knowing it – they are used in cakes, pasta and mayonnaise.

But you can make an easy ethical choice when buying eggs by chosing organic or free range eggs over barn of ‘farm fresh’ eggs – or go to a local farmers market and buy the eggs from where you know how they are produced.

Pictures by Ernst Vikne, Maqi and Alastair Seagroatt via WikiMedia Commons.

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