Know your eggs.
I was at my beautiful friends house the other day and we were cooking with her "Omega 3 Free-Range Eggs". I studied the carton with a healthy scepticism; I know how misleading labelling in our food system can be. It is something you learn when you study nutrition. However why should my friend be concerned - surely she can trust the claims being made about the product she has purchased? With a quick Google search, we established that these "free-range" eggs were actually from chickens raised in sheds with up to 20,000 birds per shed and simply fed high omega 3 diet such as flax seeds. Frustrating stuff for my friend who is trying hard to be a conscious consumer and choose ethical and healthy options for her family - and paying top dollar to do so. Many consumers are becoming aware of and are increasingly choosing to purchase animal and environmentally friendly products. This is reflected in the fact that between 2005 and 2010 sales of cage-free eggs grew by 67%. People are using their purchasing power and it speaks loudly to supermarkets and suppliers.
Ideally chickens kept for egg production would live a life free from suffering, from cages and over-crowding, and with the opportunity to experience their natural behaviours such as dust bathing, foraging, having a secluded place to lay eggs and space to flap their wings. This does not occur in all methods of egg production. Here is the down low on the main production methods:
In Australia, there are around 11 million chickens kept in battery cages each year, the majority in huge sheds. Each hen shares its cage with 3-20 cage mates, which equates to each having less personal space than an A4 sheet of paper! They are forced to stand constantly on hard wire, are exposed to constant artificial lighting and are deprived of all their natural instincts. This drives them crazy to the point of cannibalism; so they get their beaks painfully removed as a preventative measure before caging. They often lose their feathers and their feet become disformed. Disease is wide spread and the chickens need to be fed antibiotics to survive.
Not a pretty sight - factory farming at its worst.
This video shows you in 1 minute what is wrong with battery cage eggs.
Battery cages are already completely banned in the EU - including the UK - and are being phased out in the US States of California and Michigan. In Australia, Tasmania and now the ACT have also banned battery cages.
In 2013, as Jamie Olivier came on board, Woolworths pledged to phase out battery cage eggs by 2018. They will no longer use eggs produced from chickens kept in cages in any of their home brand products. Coles will no longer sell home brand cage eggs, but still stocks other brands of battery cage eggs.
These chickens are out of the cages but are still raised in factory farms, with hundreds of thousands kept in large sheds with no access to outdoors or fresh air, where they suffer from disease and lameness and have their beaks trimmed. It is a step up, but a small one. They are often labelled "cage free".
In the EU there are enforceable standards for "free-range" however, in Australia there is only a code - i.e. there is no legal definition of free-range.
The chickens are kept in sheds but they must have access to outdoors (although undercover investigations have found that this is not happening with some producers).
The stocking density can vary between the recommended 1,500 birds per hectare up to 40,000 birds per hectare! That is a huge difference and there is no easy way of knowing. The birds can still experience over-crowding and have their beaks trimmed off.
This is the best option. A certified organic egg must come from a chicken that has been given natural conditions for its life. These include access to 8 hours of darkness per 24 hours, to rest, natural light, forage areas for 6 hours per day, and unrestricted access to outdoors. The stocking density must be no more than 1,000 chickens a hectare. No antibiotics are allowed to be used.
All of these methods of producing eggs share the problem of the hatching of chicks raised for egg laying. Only female chickens lay eggs which means male chicks (12 million a year in Australia) are routinely killed by gas or by being ground up alive.
Fair trade NSW and Choice have both said that egg labelling is misleading and have pushed for a national standard. When buying your eggs become aware of labelling and marketing imagery. Pictures of green rolling hills and nests do not indicate anything except a pretty picture. Wording such as "caged", "grain-fed"," barn-laid", "Omega 3", "cage- free" do not imply welfare standards. If spending the extra money to buy free-range then look a little further to see how free-range that supplier actually is. To know standards are adhered to then look for certified organic eggs when possible or even get some chickens for the back garden and get connected to your food:) You can help increase the standards by asking the cafes, restaurants, school canteens and work place kitchens what eggs they are cooking with.
My next post will look closely at the different brands in Australia to help when purchasing your eggs.
Jamie Olivier did a great series, 'Jamie's Fowl Dinners', exploring the chicken and the egg. If you get a chance check it out.