What Do Egg Labels Mean? Free Range Eggs Temporarily Lose Their Status Across The UK

Farmers have been ordered to keep hens inside to prevent bird flu.

Free range eggs across the UK have temporarily lost their free-range status and will now appear with a sticker to warn consumers.

Free range farmers in England, Scotland and Wales were ordered to keep hens inside barns 12 weeks ago in order to prevent the spread of bird flu.

Under EU law, eggs can’t be sold as free range if hens have been housed for more than 12 weeks, so from Tuesday, they’ll appear in stores with a sticker on them reading: “Eggs laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare.”

The emergency measures keeping birds inside are slowly being lifted, but in the meantime, if you’re concerned about the eggs you’re buying, here’s the lowdown on the different egg labels and what they actually mean.

Fred Bahurlet / EyeEm via Getty Images

Under European law there are two classes of egg quality: A and B.

Eggs are described as “A” grade when they are fresh eggs with shells intact and the yolk does not move away from the centre of the egg on rotation.

In comparison, grade “B” eggs are broken out and pasteurised.

Unless you’re purchasing your eggs from a very small, local producer, you’ll probably notice a small lion stamped on each of your eggs.

The British Lion food safety mark appears on around 90% of UK eggs, meaning they have been produced within the lion scheme and abide by a set code of conduct.

There are four methods for egg production, each represented by a corresponding number on egg boxes: laying cage production (3), barn egg production (2), free range egg production (1) and organic egg production (0).

Laying Cage Production (3)

According to the British Egg Information Service (BEIS), across the EU conventional “battery” cages are banned. In the UK, they have been replaced by larger, “enriched” colony cages. However, producers in some other EU countries did not meet the deadline to move out of battery cages.

“The new colony cages provide 750cm² per bird along with a nest box for the birds to lay their eggs in, perching space for the birds to sleep on and a scratching area to perform natural behaviours,” the website explains.

“In the UK, most of the new enriched colony cages are designed to contain between 40 and 80 birds, enabling better use of the space and giving them more room to move around the colony.”

All British Lion cage eggs come from enriched colony cages and the boxes will not display potentially misleading images of hens roaming fields.

Barn Egg Production (2)

In the barn system hens are able to move freely around the house and under the Lion code, there is a maximum colony size of 6,000 birds.

“The EU Welfare of Laying Hens Directive stipulates a maximum stocking density of nine hens per square metre of useable floor space,” the BEIS explains.

“Perches for the hens must be installed to allow 15 centimetres of perch per hen. Litter must account for one third of the ground surface. This is used for scratching and dust bathing.”

The barns must contain one nest box per five hens or communal nests. The hens are provided with plenty of food and water as well as drinking space. Feeding troughs are raised so that prepared food is not scattered.

“Electric lighting is provided to give an optimum day length throughout the year,” the site adds.

“At the end of the laying period the house is completely cleaned and disinfected.”

The new sticker.
British Egg Information Service
The new sticker.

Free Range Production (1)

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.

Under the Lion code, producers must also provide outdoor shading for birds and have a maximum flock size of 16,000 birds, divided into colonies of 4,000 where flock size is over 6,000 birds in total.

The hens are kept in barns at nighttime, which must comply with the regulations for birds kept purely in barn systems (including perches and litter).

Due to the current safety warning, free range hens across the UK have been living in the barns during the day. Although some are now being let out into the open, farmers in other, more high-risk areas are keeping the birds inside.

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), which represents more than 95% of UK free range egg production, explained why these eggs are still being classed as “free range” and will still cost the same.

“These are all still free range hens but some are temporarily housed to protect them from bird flu. Free range producers still incur the same costs for land and staff while birds are housed, and in many cases are facing increased costs for additional biosecurity,” chief executive Mark Williams said.

“We need to avoid a potential ‘postcode lottery’ whereby individual farmers could be penalised if they have chosen to temporarily continue to keep their hens inside.

“Therefore all of our members, supported by retailers, have taken the decision to label all free range eggs, to help protect the future of the British free range sector.”

Organic Production (0)

Hens producing organic eggs are always free range, so will also be affected by the emergency measures. But unlike free range hens, organic hens must be fed an organically produced diet and ranged on organic land.

“The hen house conditions for organic hens are set by the EU Organic Regulations and stipulate a maximum stocking density of 6 hens per square metre of useable area and a maximum flock size of 3,000 birds,” the BEIS explains.

Hens must be provided with nest boxes and organic hens have more perch space than free range hens.