Adam Henson’s farm talk – Where our food comes from part seven: eggs

In the UK, battery hens are a thing of the past and egg production is far healthier than it was, finds Adam Henson.

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“Go to work on an egg”. Simple advice that can be heard today, even though it’s been nearly 50 years since Tony Hancock used the phrase in a series of black and white TV ads.

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In the 1950s and 60s, it was the job of the Egg Marketing Board to buy, grade and promote British eggs. Not only did the Board make memorable adverts, but it was also responsible for one of the best known symbols of the food industry: the red lion symbol of quality. Like millions of people, I love a boiled egg for breakfast and even cereal-eaters will consume eggs daily in everything from cakes to takeaways. It’s big business, with more than 30 million laying hens in the UK, which makes us the sixth largest egg producer in the European Union.

When you go into the supermarket, the different types of eggs on sale can be confusing. The key things to look out for are size, quality and the production method. The old system of sizing eggs on a scale 0-7 has been replaced by a simpler arrangement of small, medium, large and very large. Small eggs have to weigh less than 54g, while the very large category is 73g and above.

The quality measure is even simpler. There are two classes: A and B. Grade A eggs are fresh and clean, with their shells in one piece and they must pass a simple test –the yolk mustn’t move away from the centre of the egg when it’s rotated.

Grade B means the eggs are not good enough to be sold in their shells but can be used in liquid or powder form for the catering trade once they’ve been pasteurised. There’s also a third category called ‘industrial grade’, which can’t be used in food at all. They are bought for use in products such as soap.

Animal welfare

However, for many shoppers these days, it’s the way eggs are produced that matters most. There are four types of egg on sale: enriched cage, barn, free range and organic. Old fashioned battery cages have been banned for well over a year and hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent by British farmers to upgrade conditions for their hens. So we now have enriched colony cages with more room for each bird, a nestbox for laying their eggs and perches for sleeping.

The barn system allows hens to move freely around indoors, with nestboxes, perches and at least a third of the barn floor taken up by litter for scratching and dust bathing.

For eggs to be labelled free range, the hens must be able to move outside their barn during the day, and there is more space for them to use. The term organic can only be used if the hens are free range, kept on land untreated with chemicals and given organically produced feed.

1980s slump

Egg safety hit the headlines in 1988, when Edwina Currie was forced to resign as a junior health minister after stating that: “Most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella”. Shoppers lost confidence in eggs and it’s thought the slump in sales meant that 400 million unwanted eggs had to be destroyed and four million hens slaughtered. Debate has raged over how accurate her claims were, although Currie has always defended her comments, saying she acted on the best information available at the time.

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But, after 25 years, we can now see that the row has improved the UK industry. Although around 20 percent of eggs are imported, British eggs are safer, healthier and more popular than ever. The red lion mark is back and now guarantees the egg comes from a British hen vaccinated against salmonella. If you look at the shell, you’ll also see a code that identifies the country of origin, the farm the egg comes from and the type of production method used, as well as a best before date. I reckon even Tony Hancock could find something to smile about in that.