Are organic eggs really any different from other eggs and are they worth the few pence extra? These days about 55% of all eggs produced in the UK are free-range, and consumers expect that to mean the hens have a good life outdoors and are treated humanely. So what's actually the difference between free-range and organic eggs, and should we care?
We love a tasty egg at home, especially as they are one of the most versatile and quick things to cook. We always thought that free-range was good enough, until we started to look into the ways chickens are kept and the meaning of different kite-marks.
In the UK, all eggs must be stamped with their production method. 0=organic, 1=free-range, 2=barn and 3=caged, while the British Lion symbol means the eggs are British-laid and the hens have been vaccinated against salmonella. When you look further into organic versus free-range, you find there are five main differences that are actually quite significant.
First, organic chickens are kept in smaller flocks, which means birds can be cared for more individually - which is good both in terms of welfare and animal health. The Soil Association allows a maximum flock size of 2,000 compared with intensively-reared free-range birds in flocks of up to 30,000.
Second, organic chickens are given more space outside - minimum 10 square metres, compared with 4 square meters for free-range - and access to the outdoors from a younger age of 12 weeks.
Third - and this one we didn't know even know about - beak-trimming is banned in organic farming. This practice is used to prevent birds damaging each other through feather-pecking, which is known to be an indication of stress. The RSPCA is campaigning for a ban on beak-trimming but it's still done routinely to non-organic hens. It involves using a blade or an infra-red beam to amputate up to a third of the bird's beak. It seems quite a cruel way to tackle bird behaviour that is now known to be a sign of distress, when giving birds more space and the chance to behave naturally is the alternative - a simple and much more humane option.
Fourth, the routine use of antibiotics is banned in organic farming, though still common practice in all other poultry farming. The concerns about use of antibiotics in farming relate not just to animal antibiotic resistance but also to antibiotic resistance in food-borne illnesses. Antibiotic use in chickens has reduced across all production methods in the last 5 years, but is still higher than many would like for human and animal health reasons.
And finally, organic birds are not fed on GM grain or feed, which many free-range hens are. The three main issues with GM feed are the potential to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity), the risk of gene transfer (transfer to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract has potential to adversely affect human health) and outcrossing (the migration of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild). Outdoor foraging, rather than being fed grain or feed, also means organic chickens eat a more varied diet of plants, grubs and insects.
Our conclusion is that organic means your eggs have been laid by free-range hens who have been allowed to behave completely naturally. If you want tasty eggs, it seems to make sense that you need healthy, well-fed chickens - and it's nice to know that the production methods do not cause suffering. For some people, the slightly higher cost of organic eggs may make them an unaffordable choice, but it's good to understand where that cost comes from and why paying a few pence extra certainly makes a difference to the hens involved!