A few weeks ago the UK egg industry declared that their produce is now free of salmonella. The news didn't lead to wild celebrations in the streets, but it was greeted with some positivity - it only took them 30 years after all. Salmonella-free eggs, they said, is down to better vaccination programmes and improved welfare standards. I'm not going to debate the effectiveness of vaccination programmes, but claims of improved welfare standards should be taken with a pinch of salt. For all that 'battery' cages were banned in the UK in 2012, nearly half of British eggs still come from hens that live their short lives in barns or 'enriched' cages. There are other reasons to be wary too - I've mentioned a few of them below.
1. Quality assurances: I've heard people use the 'Lion Mark' as an indication of animal welfare. Who can blame them? It looks fairly official. But without a free range or organic indicator, all the Lion Mark proves is that food safety criteria and minimum welfare requirements have been met. So Lion Mark hens could come be happy free range or stuck in a barn or cage.
2. Free range: For years I assumed free range eggs represent the highest welfare standards. But it turns out all free range means is that hens have the opportunity to roam freely. That's obviously an improvement on living in a barn or a cage, but it doesn't prevent them from having their beaks clipped or being bred to grow brittle bones (to improve egg yield). Nor does it stop their premature death after 80 weeks, or the stress of travel to slaughter.
3. Dual branding: Earlier this month The Times revealed the mixed messaging of major egg producer Noble Foods. Their flagship 'Happy Eggs' brand boasts about its high welfare practices claiming to spread happiness 'from farm to plate'. But as highlighted by The Times article, other brands in their repertoire do quite the opposite. Their 'Big and Fresh' range is produced by caged hens whose life will be spent crammed into a small space and starved of their natural behaviours. I'm sure you agree this is a far cry from the happiness offered by Noble Foods Happy Eggs brand.
There are a number of ways we can improve the welfare of hens with our choices. Some free range varieties are better than others - anything that is Soil Association approved meets the highest welfare standard. Compassion in World Farming have a good guide. We can buy eggs from a local supplier whose practices we know from start to finish. Alternatively, we can support charities like the Humane League who lobby companies like Noble Foods to improve their welfare standards.
Of course, to really help the hens we can stop eating eggs altogether. That's probably the best way to rule out salmonella too!