Our Guide to Chickens and Eggs

2
2218

Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,

Chicken and Eggs: The Reality

From sizzling Sunday roasts to curries, creamy salads and finger-lickin’ delicious foods, it’s a fact – Britain is a nation of chicken lovers.

Chicken skewers
Chicken skewers

Beloved for its accessibility, ease to cook, bank-pleasing prices and health benefits, nearly half of all the meat we eat in the UK is poultry1. With an astonishing 2.2 million chickens devoured each day in this country alone (we were shocked too), you can’t argue with the facts – we love chicken and all its trimmings.

However, more and more, we’re starting to ask questions about our favourite meat. While chicken may be tasty and lean, is it always good for us? Has it ever crossed your mind why a budget-friendly chicken can be cheaper – at least pound for pound – than many everyday staples, including bread?

Here at Lucy Bee, we’re passionate about learning exactly what’s on our plate and how it came to be there. For many of us, this means waking up to the realities of purse-friendly chicken farming.

As you’ll soon see, endless media stories have begun painting a real horror story when it comes to our poultry and the problem is only growing worse. If we don’t start asking questions now – if we don’t start to wonder exactly where our chicken is from and what it’s taken to get onto our plates – then where do we go from here? Will things ever improve?

The UK’s Chicken Consumption: the Truth

As you now know, us Brits love our chicken. So much so that 800,000 of us devour a Nando’s each week, while the average person eats around two kilograms of our feathery friends each month. Just to put this into perspective, in 1950 we ate less than a kilogram of chicken per year2.

You’d think that given our love for chicken, we’d be passionate about getting the very best and enjoying the highest quality meat there is. Yet, shockingly, around 80% of the chicken we eat comes from super-fast growing birds3, which (we think) should come with huge health warnings.

While it might sound pretty handy to have farms growing mammoth chickens, the truth is a whole lot scarier and much of the chicken industry has become simply about making a profit and producing the cheapest chickens for consumers to buy.

Worryingly, many birds are genetically bred to grow from tiny, cute chicks to super-size chickens in just a matter of weeks. In fact, over the last forty years, your typical farmed chicken has almost tripled in weight. As a result of this, most six-week-old chickens weigh 2.6kg – that’s the equivalent of a six-year-old child weighing 130kg, or more than 20 stone4.

It sounds pretty horrific, doesn’t it? Animal welfare campaigners have slammed the ginormous new breed of chickens, saying that they are forced to become so heavy that they “are lame for the last week or two of their lives4”. In fact, these chickens have become so controversial that the Dutch even penned a word for them – “plofkips”, which means “exploded chicken” – and launched a (successful) country-wide campaign to have them axed from supermarket shelves altogether5.

But what of our meat industry? What’s the bigger picture there? Well, as you now know, our chicken industry has been dogged by horror stories. Just last year, the Food Standards Agency revealed that three-quarters of our supermarket chicken was contaminated with campylobacter, a potentially lethal bug6.

Meanwhile, it’s reported that millions of chickens in the UK are knowingly pumped with antibiotics7. This is a huge problem when you consider the ever-growing concerns for antibiotic resistance, and it’s led the World Health Organisation to warn that antibiotic use in livestock is contributing to the global threat of a “post-antibiotic era”.

There’s also the problem that, should we go ahead and leave the EU, animal rights could be thrown into turmoil. This becomes even more of an issue when you consider that, until recently, Conservative ministers were ready to scrap many guidelines on animal welfare. They were even prepared to let the poultry industry self-regulate and write its own rules8.

How Are Chickens Kept and Reared?

When we buy a supermarket chicken, many of us will only be thinking of the delicious roast we’re going to make, or the casserole we’ll dish up. We look at the price and count the pennies we’ve saved. How many of us actually consider exactly where the chicken has come from and how it was reared?

Worryingly, a huge 94% of broiler chickens – that’s chickens bred specifically for meat production – come from intensively-reared birds9.

As you now know, these birds are bred to be as large as possible. Yet this in itself poses huge health concerns. Many of these chickens are reported to have leg problems (lameness is not uncommon), while their bones, hearts and lungs are put under huge strain.

There can also be up to 30,000 birds crammed into one darkened shed, with little or no natural light, where computers will control everything from heating to ventilating systems.

What’s more, chickens will naturally live for six or more years. Under intensive farming methods, a meat chicken will often live less than six weeks before slaughter.

Meanwhile, many of your supermarket chickens will have been fed drugs or antibiotics to control parasites, while most of the sheds they’re kept in are only cleaned once the chickens have been slaughtered. As you can imagine, this means the floors will often be blanketed in faeces and dirt, and the air can become polluted and pungent with ammonia from the droppings.

Truly free range organic chicken on garden chair
Truly free range organic chicken on garden chair

Your typical chicken will also be given very little space to move around in. While most of our Sunday roasts may taste delicious, they’ll only have been given an area which is around the size of one A4 sheet of paper to roam in – that’s smaller than the oven they’ll be cooked in. Free-range and organic chickens are given more space but how often does your typical shopper buy these when faced with an escalated price?

The True Cost of Cheap Chicken

Of course, price is a huge issue and is something that individual household budgets are governed by, coupled with personal choice . It’s interesting to note that many people prefer to buy free-range eggs (free-range and organic eggs make up around 45% of egg production9).

For example, you can buy a whole chicken in Tesco for just £3.50, yet its Free Range equivalent will set you back £7.22, while an organic bird will cost £13 – almost quadruple the price. Meanwhile, six eggs from caged hens10 cost 70p, while Free Range are just 89p and organic £1.80.

As Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), says3: “I think there’s a level of awareness about free range eggs versus cage eggs. I do not think the same level of awareness applies to meat chicken. I think most people would be horrified to find that the average cheap chicken was killed at just six or seven weeks old, as a creature that had grown hugely and abnormally fast.”

As Patrick Holden11 writes in The Guardian: “So who’s to blame for this crazy state of affairs? It’s tempting to blame the farmers and food companies but we farmers are stuck in an economic system that mainly rewards those who produce food at the cheapest price, as a result of which only those who are selling into high-end niche markets can afford to do the right thing.

“The truth is this is a rigged, cheap food system that has two prices: the one you pay now and the one we all pay later. It’s a story that repeats with carrots, apples and peas, meat, milk and cheese. Even breakfast cereal. At some point we need to ask ourselves, why do we support such a destructive food system?”

Chicken Labelling: What it Means

As you’ve probably guessed, eye-watering prices mean that pasture-fed, organic chickens are often a niche market option, despite coming from healthier and happier chickens.

Yet if animal welfare is important to you, then we recommend that you always check the labels before buying your chicken – and don’t just buy on price alone. Instead of being lured in by pictures of grassy, green farms and happy-looking chickens, it’s worth arming yourself with as much knowledge about the labels as possible. Here’s what those chicken meat labels really mean:

Indoor:

These chickens will usually be packed into purpose-built sheds, with no access to the outdoors or even natural light. However, UK-bought indoor chickens (those signed up to the Red Tractor scheme) are allowed slightly more space – broilers reared here have a maximum stocking density of 39kg per square metre, compared to an EU limit of 42kg per square metre. Slaughter takes place when the chicken is just 33-38 days of age, depending on the size of bird required.

Free-range:

Free-range chickens must be given access to the outdoors for at least half of their life. Chickens will be a lot less crammed in, too, with a maximum stocking density of around 27.5kg per square metre – that’s no more than 12 or 13 birds. Under free range labels, farmers must encourage the birds to roam around by giving them access to overhead cover, wholegrain feed, water and properly-managed vegetation. However, their lives still remain relatively short, with them going to slaughter at a minimum age of 56 days.

Organic:

As you might expect, organic chickens have enjoyed the happiest conditions of them all. Under EU law, farmers can only keep 21kg of birds per square metre (that’s around ten birds) and have a maximum flock size of 4,800.

If you buy UK organic chickens, then around 70% of them will have been regulated by the Soil Association, which limits flock size to 1,000 birds. Meanwhile, they must be able to get outside for at least one third of their life.

Organic poultry must also enjoy easy and constant access to outdoor pasture, or range covered with suitable vegetation and the slaughter age is a minimum of 81 days. Buy organic and you can also ensure that their feed is grown without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Roaming free in the vegetable patch
Roaming free in the vegetable patch

As well as indoor, organic and free-range, you can also see many other things on the labels of your supermarket chicken – decoding those labels can get confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for! Here’s what they mean:

Freedom Food:

This is an animal welfare scheme that can apply to indoor, free-range or organic chickens. Birds reared under the Freedom Food label must live in a maximum density of 30kg per square metre (about 13 or 14 birds) and there must also be plenty of access to natural light. For every 1,000 birds, there must also be: 1.5 straw bales, a two metre perch space and one pecking object.

Soil Association:

The Soil Association stamp is an organic standard which covers a range of animal welfare issues, including ensuring produce isn’t overly-confined and that the animal has plenty of bedding, as well as free-range access with shelter and shade. Under this label, farmers must also adhere to specific stunning and slaughter practices and monitor animal welfare.

RSPCA Assured:

The RSPCA use this scheme to protect welfare standards for farm animals. This label covers both indoor and outdoor rearing systems and means that animals must be given enough space, bedding and enrichment materials. Farms under this scheme must also be monitored for health and welfare, while stunning and slaughter processes must also be specified.

Red Tractor:

The Red Tractor scheme, run by Assured Food Standards, certifies two things – firstly, that the food was produced in Britain and secondly that it meets quality standards for food safety, hygiene and the environment. Some of the standards protect chickens by reducing stocking density and ensuring that farms must undergo health and welfare monitoring.

The UK Egg Industry

From scrambled eggs piled high on mountains of toast to dippy eggs and omelettes, eggs are our favourite way to start the day. But as one of our most delicious, versatile foods, just how ethical are the eggs we buy in this country? And are they any good for us?

Which eggs to choose?
Which eggs to choose?

Almost half of all eggs produced or sold in the UK are free-range or organic – an impressive stat when you consider that the UK egg market produced over 10 billion eggs last year, and a further two billion were imported12.

In fact, there’s a huge contrast between factory-farmed chicken and our nation’s egg buying habits. Many of the country’s biggest supermarket chains, including Sainsbury’s, Waitrose , M&S, The Co-Op and Morrisons, have banned caged eggs, while Tesco eggs are now around 70% cage-free13.

There’s also the fact that so-called “battery cages” have now been banned across the EU (these cages crammed in an astonishing 12 hens per square metre where artificial lights would be kept on day and night to encourage production), being replaced with “enriched” cages.

Under the new laws, egg-producing hens must be given at least 750cm squared of space within their cages, as well as a nest, perching space, scratching area and a feed trough and drinking system.

Yet despite the love for free-range or organic eggs, there’s a gruesome, horrific underbelly to our egg industry, too. One which many of us remain blissfully unaware of when we place boxes of eggs into our supermarket trolleys.

Just last year, it was revealed that there had become a huge shortage in “chick-sexers” – a job which requires people to separate out the male chicks, who are then gassed to death and used as feed for reptiles and other animals when they are just one or two days old14. Up to 40 million male chicks are slaughtered in the UK every year.

While it may sound like something which only happens in the most squalid of conditions, this culling happens regardless of whether or not the chicks come from a free-range or caged background.

Those in the egg industry argue that this is always done “humanely” (A spokesman from the British Egg Information Service (BEIS) told The Independent: “They are culled almost immediately, so at a day old, they are humanely gassed. In some other countries this is not the case but it always is in the UK. It is the only method used14.”), yet even female chicks will suffer in some way, having their beaks clipped to ensure ensure they do  “not peck at each other and to stop cannibalism”, while they are expected to lay around 300 eggs each year (in the wild, hens will only lay around 20 per year)15.

In spite of new guidelines, there’s also the fact that overcrowding is still common. This means that hens are severely restricted in the amount of exercise they can do which, when combined with the huge amounts of calcium they need for serious egg production, can often lead to fractured or brittle bones. Around 35 per cent of deaths among caged hens were caused by bone fragility, known as cage layer osteoporosis15.

When a hen reaches the end of its egg-laying life (this is when they are around a year old, although hens can live six to ten years in the wild), they will often be taken to gas houses on the same farms on which they’ve been raised. They’ll then end up in processed meats, particularly pet food.

Egg Labelling Decoded

So, what can be done to ensure the eggs we eat come from hens who have been treated fairly? How can you ensure that the eggs you buy are the highest quality and come with the highest standards of animal welfare?

Well, for starters, it’s handy to know that all eggs sold in the UK are stamped with the method of production: 0=organic, 1= free-range, 2=barn, 3=caged. Meanwhile, the red British Lion symbol will tell you that the eggs are British-laid and have been vaccinated against salmonella.

Price is also a good indicator of how the hens that laid the eggs were raised – the cheapest supermarket eggs are likely to be from caged hens, while the most expensive organic brands are often the highest-welfare.

Want to know more? Here’s our lowdown on what egg labels really mean:

Caged Eggs:

Battery eggs were banned across the EU in 2012. Today “enriched” caged hens have slightly more room to move, there are still up to 14 hens per square metre and their natural behaviours are severely restricted. Beak trimming is also standard practice.

If you buy caged eggs, then try to make sure they come stamped with the British Lion symbol, which means they’ve been produced here in the UK – many EU countries ignore the law and continue to keep hens in battery cages.

Barn Eggs:

While barns may come with plenty of wholesome images, the reality to egg-producing hens is a whole lot different. You see, barn eggs come from hens which are kept inside huge, windowless buildings – often old battery sheds which have simply been converted.

Although these hens can roam freely and are given access to perches and nesting boxes, there can still be up to nine hens per square metre of area. Meanwhile, many birds will lay their eggs on the floor, where they can be eaten by other birds or contaminated by dirt and faeces.

Free Range:

Once considered the “gold standard” of eggs, many of us will snap up free-range eggs with good intentions – we assume we’re buying into ethical, wholesome egg production, eating eggs that have come from hens who have enjoyed a happy life.

Generally, free-range eggs are produced under high animal welfare conditions and hens must be given constant access to open-air runs. There also cannot be more than 2,500 hens per hectare of land and there must be a certain number of exits (or “pop-holes”) to sheds.

However, despite a free-range carton’s sunny, bright exterior, the hens haven’t enjoyed as healthy and as happy a life as we’d like to think. There is still a limited number of pop-holes, meaning some “free-range” hens will never step outside the sheds. There are also problems of over-crowding in sheds – nine hens per square metre is still a lot, when you think about it – which can lead to aggressive behaviour among the birds and even cannibalism.

This means that many “free-range” hens will, again, have their beaks clipped, even though the bird’s beak is incredibly sensitive and beak clipping can lead to intense pain16. The only way to avoid eggs laid by beak-trimmed hens is to buy those certified organic by the Soil Association, which does not support the practice, or free-range British Blacktail eggs marketed by Waitrose, which pays farmers a premium for birds they’ve protected from the procedure.

Organic:

Organic eggs for lunch
Organic eggs for lunch

If animal welfare is important to you, then always go for organic eggs. Hens kept under organic conditions enjoy more freedom to roam outdoors than non-organic free-range birds, as well as less crowded spaces – there are up to six hens per square metre in flocks of no more than 3,000. Beak trimming is not permitted under the rules of the Soil Association.

The Lion Mark:

The red Lion Mark appears only on British-laid eggs and ensures they meet food safety standards. However, it only covers minimum legislative requirements for animal welfare, so permits the use of ‘enriched cages’ for hens, as well as barn and free-range systems.

The Lion Mark schemes also offer free-range production, so their logos may appear on free-range meat and eggs.

What Are the Health Implications of Buying Factory-Farmed?

All too often, we’re told to eat chicken and eggs to stay healthy. Lean and packed with protein, endless media stories and health blogs are awash with advice to avoid red meat and to stick with white, or to stack our eggs high at breakfast to get us through the day.

Yet, now that we know all the problems with farmed chicken and eggs, are they really all that good for us in the first place? Just how healthy is it?

Well, as you can probably imagine, factory-farmed chicken isn’t as healthy for us as an organically-reared bird. For starters, broiler chickens crammed into sheds contain three times as much fat, one third less protein and less omega-3 fatty acid than they did 40 years ago17.

As Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, argues:

“Keeping chickens in cruel conditions produces a poorer product. Why do we think it acceptable to expect people on lower incomes to have to feed their children poorer factory-farmed food?”

Similarly, the higher quality eggs are also the best to fuel and feed our body with. Often, the deeper and more vibrant the yellow of your egg yolk, the healthier and happier the hen was that laid it!

Typically, when compared to caged eggs, free-range eggs have:

  • Twice as much omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times more vitamin E
  • Seven times more beta-carotene
  • A quarter less saturated fat
  • A third less cholesterol

What’s more, organic eggs can have up to six times more vitamin D (a vitamin that’s difficult to get enough of in diet alone) than caged, as well as more B vitamins. Meanwhile, eggs that are laid by healthy chickens will also contain more lutein and zeaxanthin in the yolks, two vital antioxidants for healthy eyes.

The answer? You guessed it! If health is important to you, then always buy the best quality meat and eggs you can afford…

What Can I Do?

Has this article given you plenty of food for thought? If you want to do more, then here are some simple things you can do to help our furry, feathery friends:

Spread the Word

If what you’ve read has shocked you, then please share this article with friends, family, whoever!

Meat-free Monday

Become a flexitarian! Aim to have at least one meat-free day per week (Meat-Free Monday is a great way to join in) to add a little variety to your diet.

Buy Organic

We’re conscious that it’s a lot tougher on your wallet but organic poultry and eggs will ensure healthier animals and a healthier you. Wherever we can, we prefer to spend that bit extra on organic meat and try to make it last for a couple of meals, if possible, eg. buying a large, organic chicken to roast on Sunday, then enjoy the leftovers in another meal (or two!), bulking it up with pulses or veggies. Obviously it’s a personal choice though.

Shop at Your Local Butchers or Farmer’s Market

Wherever you can, stock up on meat at your butcher or nearest farmer’s market. Not only will you know exactly where your meat is from (and what it’s been fed) but you’ll also be fuelling the local economy and supporting animal welfare, too.

Failing that, stick with organic meat, or you could even try shopping for one of the many independent box schemes that have sprung up online.

Don’t Waste

If you buy meat, it’s a goof idea to not only make sure that it’s sustainable but to also not let a scrap go to waste. Use your leftovers in other meals and even the bones can be used to make your own stock or broth.

Eat Mindfully

One of the healthiest things you can do is to practice mindful eating. Not only will this give you the chance to think about where your food came from but will also help you to reflect on how it nourishes your body. What’s more, it may even help you to resize portions, too!

Sam Hadadi Signature

  1. About the poultry industry
  2. Chickens Farmed for Meat
  3. Chicken in the UK
  4. The growing pains of a selectively grown chicken
  5. The case of the Dutch ‘exploded chicken’
  6. Three quarters of supermarket chickens are contaminated
  7. Antibiotics use in agriculture
  8. Brexit and farm animals
  9. Do people know where their chicken comes from?
  10. The cost of eggs at Tesco
  11. Buy a cheap chicken today and pay for it in the long run
  12. If you knew how your meat was farmed, would you eat it?
  13. All eggs to be free range within 2 years
  14. Hatched, discarded, gassed
  15. Laying hens
  16. Debeaking explored
  17. Why is this chicken fatter than it looks?

About Lucy Bee Limited

Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.

The views and opinions expressed in videos and articles on the Lucy Bee website/s or social networking sites are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lucy Bee Limited.

  • Jasmine Clarke

    Thank you for a super interesting article – I was absolutely hooked reading this Kindest regards Jasmine

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, all the best, Jim (on behalf of Lucy)

SHARE
Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food. Sam is co-founder of a great blog, www.iamintothis.com.
  • Jasmine Clarke

    Thank you for a super interesting article – I was absolutely hooked reading this Kindest regards Jasmine

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, all the best, Jim (on behalf of Lucy)