What’s happened?

Britain’s major retailers and food service companies have said that by 2025 they will no longer sell whole eggs (in their shell) which have been laid by hens from enriched colony cages. The year 2025 is their deadline but it could happen sooner.

What about processed food?

At present this policy is not applied to the eggs used in processed foods – each retailer will have its own view on whether they still use eggs from enriched colony cage systems. Therefore, if you want to know how the eggs used to make your mayonnaise, sandwiches and cakes were produced, you’ll need to check the label.

How will eggs be sold?

Once the cage-free policy is implemented, your fresh eggs in boxes are likely to come from three systems; barn, free range or organic. Each system has its own set of standards which farmers must adhere to.

BARN EGGS

Barn eggs are laid by hens which are free to move around their shed and display natural behaviours such as perching, scratching and nesting. However, they never go outside. Barn production is likely to increase as cages are phased out so a British standard for farmers to follow covering issues such as how much space hens have and how many are allowed in a shed will be published soon.

FREE RANGE

Egg marketing legislation stipulates that for eggs to be termed ‘free range’, hens must have continuous daytime access to runs which are mainly covered with vegetation and a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare. The hen house conditions for free range hens must comply with the regulations for birds kept in barn systems, with a maximum stocking density of nine hens per square metre of useable area. Inside they are free to move around their shed and display natural behaviours such as perching, scratching and nesting.

ORGANIC EGGS

In free range organic systems, hens are housed in barns or aviaries but they also have constant daytime access to an outside range with vegetation. In the EU each hen must have at least four square metres of outside space.

Organic farms certified by organisations such as the Soil Association must provide additional space; each hen has a minimum of 10 square metres of outside space, and do not allow beak trimming. EU organic regulations limit stocking density inside the shed to six birds per square metre.

WHAT ABOUT THE FARMERS?

The cage-free commitment is a big deal with major implications for farmers who now need to invest in changing their system, and also for consumers who need to understand the difference between the eggs they buy.

The most important outcome of this change in policy must be that nutritious eggs remain affordable for all but that consumers are given a clear choice to buy the eggs from the production system they want to support.