Ethical eggs: how organic is different

As shoppers and cooks, how do we choose the most ethical, flavourful and nutritious eggs available? As you scan the egg shelves of your supermarket, you may see idyllic images of hens roaming in wild flower meadows, but you’ll need to study the labels to know more about the welfare of the birds that laid your eggs.

Ethical eggs: how organic is different

Photo credit: Bret Jordan

On the label

All eggs sold in the UK by producers with more than 50 birds must be stamped and marked on the box with their production method: 0 is organic, 1 is free-range, 2 is barn and 3 is caged. According to latest industry data, the eggs that UK consumers buy are 61.5% free range, 35% caged, 2% barn and 1.5% organic.

The British Lion symbol tells you that the eggs are British-laid and have been vaccinated against salmonella.

Other food standard labels you might see are Red Tractor (where the animal welfare standards meet the minimum required by law) and RSPCA Assured (which sets higher standards than the minimum but can apply to both caged and free-range chickens).

The different types of egg production

Organic is the gold-standard of egg production with the highest standards of animal welfare. Hens are kept in smaller flocks (capped at 3,000 under the EU standards) in less crowded conditions - allowing a maximum of 6 hens per m² indoors and giving each hen at least 4m² of space outdoors.

The birds have unrestricted daytime access to green outdoor space (in free range standards, there are no rules about the number of exits from huge sheds, which can leave outdoor access very restricted). The controversial practice of beak-trimming, done to stop birds feather pecking each other but also preventing them from their natural behaviours of foraging and ground-scratching, is banned in organic but not for free range or caged birds.

Organic standards ensure the enclosure is rested between flocks, allowing more time for vegetation to grow back, and gives hens access to the outdoors at 12 weeks - a much younger age than free range systems.

In organic farming, hens are fed a diet free from genetically modified (GM) ingredients, find out why that’s a good thing here, and are also not given routine antibiotics, which are often overused in other farming practices. For more on this read our blog, here.

Free range
Free range birds have unlimited day time access outside and are housed in barns with bedding and perches. Space indoors is set at 9 hens per m² and under the RSPCA-assured and British Lion standards, free range flocks are capped at 16,000.

The worst practices of battery cages were prohibited by the EU in 2012, but ‘enriched’ or ‘furnished’ cages are legal - although there are questions over whether they’re really any better. With up to 17 birds allowed per square metre, no limit on the flock size and beak-trimming routine, many retailers no longer stock eggs from caged hens.

Barn eggs
Hens raised in barns have more space to roam than caged birds and display their natural behaviours like dust bathing, but they do not have access to the outdoors. Under the British Lion standards, there is a maximum flock size of 6,000 birds.

A quick summary of egg farming

Why organic does it differently

At Daylesford Organic Farm in Gloucestershire they have chosen a breed of chicken best suited to their way of farming. Senior Farms Manager, Richard Smith (pictured below) explains:

"Our breed of hens and chickens are chosen for their ability to live in a purely organic environment - they have a huge, natural desire to range, roam and forage. Our Blue Legbar hens are naturally inquisitive, small and enjoy lots of movement and freedom, and after laying one egg per day are free to do as they wish. Our chickens are also free to range their lush pastures which are full of worms, fruits and grubs that they love to eat.

“We are proud to own the whole process and ensure that the welfare of our animals is put first. Living organically, and having adequate space are just a few of the key pillars of our chicken rearing practices and something we would never compromise on.”

It’s a matter of taste

The question of whether you can taste the difference between caged, free range and organic eggs is subjective, but speak to chefs and many will tell you that they believe that organic eggs taste better.

Galton Blackiston, Michelin-starred chef at Morston Hall in Norfolk says “With organic eggs you get a richer egg - our ethos is to always use the best ingredients we can and this includes organic eggs”.

And as for the benefits of cooking with organic eggs, Richard Bainbridge of Benedicts in Norwich says “I love organic eggs, the richest of flavours and the blood orange colour yolk makes the most incredible custards, ice creams and hollandaise. Even scrambled eggs show off the simplicity of a beautiful organic egg.”

While chef and caterer Paul Bellchambers says "Organic eggs are great for those dishes that need the colour and flavour of eggs as the main ingredient. The richness of both hit the senses in a way that other eggs can't. I love a baked organic egg with bacon, onion, tomatoes, or poached egg with chard or spinach.”

It’s fair to say that price is a good indicator of the quality of the eggs and the welfare of the birds, with eggs from caged birds being cheapest and organic eggs being the most expensive. The extra cost means you are supporting a way of farming that offers the highest chicken and hen welfare available, with the birds free to forage and graze as nature intended. Like our chefs, we think organic eggs taste best too, but don’t take our word for it - try for yourself and see if you feel the same!

Polly Robinson

Polly Robinson

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