31 million eggs a day are consumed in the UK. More than 85% are produced in the UK.
One of the facts that you may not know and which may make you reconsider eating eggs is what happens to male chicks. They of course lay no eggs and could live up to 16 years naturally. Housing them is not financially viable for farmers. As they are a different breed to those raised for meat and put weight on to slowly, this is not a financially viable option either. Very few are needed for breeding. Most male chicks are killed shortly after birth. It is estimated 30-40 million are killed every year in the UK. Most are ground up alive (macerated) or gassed. Whether eggs come from organic or caged systems, this happens to all male birds.
In the wild hens would only lay around 20 eggs a year. In farming sheds with high protein feed and almost constant lighting they lay on average 314 eggs. Egg production on this scale begins to go down when hens are still very young but they are no longer profitable and so are slaughtered on average at 72 weeks – just a fraction of their natural lifespan.
Although welfare standards in the UK have improved ( battery cages have been replaced by enriched, slightly larger cages), other European countries are ahead of us. Switzerland has already banned battery and enriched cages and Austria and Belgium plan to ban enriched cages in 2020 and 2024 respectively.Germany already has introduced even larger cages called family cages but consumers there are demanding free range.
Eggs from Caged Birds
About 49% of the UK’s eggs come from cages. Battery cages giving each hen the space of an A4 piece of paper were banned by EU law and replaced by enriched cages which are slightly larger. Even in the new enriched cages, space is so limited that birds cannot stretch and flap their wings. Birds spend most of their time on a sloping (easier for egg collecting) metal mesh floor and they still have no access to fresh air or natural light. These birds are regularly debeaked to prevent them from injuring each other.
Eggs from these birds are not allowed to show pictures of birds roaming freely or use term such as “farm”.
About 5% of the UK’s eggs come from percheries and are “barn eggs”. Despite the nice name, birds are kept in huge sheds called percheries and there can be thousands in each perchery. There is one nest box for every 5 hens. The maximum stocking density is 9 birds per square metre, so there is still little space per bird. Birds are still routinely debeaked. They never go outside.
Free Range Eggs
The EU egg marketing legislation stipulates that for eggs to be termed ‘free range’, hens must have continuous daytime access to runs which are mainly covered with vegetation and a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare. They live in percheries but with 1 pop hole per 600 birds to give them access to outside. On average, however, less than 10% of birds are outside at any one time.
All organic eggs are free range (but free range aren’t all organic). Organic farmers must allow laying hens access to the outdoors, and must allow them 1666 cm2 of indoor floor space each. Routine debeaking is forbidden in organic egg production, so feather pecking can be a problem. Despite evidence that hens suffer greatly due to feather pecking when housed in flocks of more than 500, organic egg farmers are permitted to keep hens in groups of up to 2500 under EU rules.
The Soil Association has the highest welfare standards and don’t usually certify flocks of more than 1,000 so although not ideal, these birds are less likely to be injured or killed. Soil Association eggs are harder to find but may be found in Waitrose, farmers markets and healthfood shops.