The British poultry sector is thriving, with eggs forming a staple part of modern diets. Recent years have seen more people buying eggs because they are affordable, versatile and healthy as part of a balanced diet. With a growing population, a home-grown source of food is absolutely crucial for the nation and it is vital that farmers are able to continue producing the safe, affordable food that the public expect and value.
We've pulled together some frequently asked questions and useful things for you to know all about British eggs.
Did you know...
- An egg containing two yolks is called a double yolker. These tend to come from younger hens whose hormone system has not fully developed.
- The colour of the egg shell is dependent on the breed of hen.
- An egg will sink in water if it is fresh
There are 39 million commercial laying hens in the UK.
How often a chicken lays an egg depends on the breed of chicken, their age and the time of year. A healthy young hen bred for egg-laying can lay almost one egg a day. On average, 11 billion eggs are laid by hens in the UK each year, making the UK 86% self-sufficient in egg production.
We eat over 12 billion eggs in the UK every year – if these were placed all in a line they would go round the world 17 times. It is estimated that per consumer, we eat 197 eggs each per year.
Eggs are a natural source of high quality protein, vitamins and minerals, and are one of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods. They are a good source of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, zinc and copper.
The UK egg industry is worth over £1 billion to the UK economy and provides 13,000 jobs.
The health and welfare of their birds is a farmers’ number one priority. They are in barns which are carefully monitored so that they don’t get too hot or too cold as well as having access to fresh food and water. 90% of British producers adhere to the Lion Code and 58% of laying hens are kept to RSPCA Assurance standards. All remaining producers must meet the DEFRA code of practice for laying hens as a minimum. Such assurance schemes all include robust production standards to ensure traceability and good agricultural practice covering food safety, protection from pollution, and animal health and welfare.
How a hen is housed depends on the choice of the farmer. There are four main ways that eggs are produced.
Free range: For eggs to be termed free-range a hen must have continuous daytime access to the outdoors, as well as nest boxes, adequate perches and floor space. Free ranging systems also often embrace other features including tree and hedge planting on range to encourage the hens roaming behaviour. All free-range hens come into the barn at night to protect them from predators. The litter on the barn floor, which makes up at least 33% of the area, is used for the hens to perform their natural behaviours such as scratching and dust bathing.
Organic: Hens producing organic eggs are raised to free range standards and are also fed an organically produced diet and ranged on organic land. Compared to free range there would be fewer birds in the same space for organic birds, this is known as a lower stocking density.
Barn: A barn system allows hens to move freely around the barn without access to the outdoors. The litter on the barn floor, which makes up at least 33% of the area, is used for the hens to perform their natural behaviours such as scratching and dust bathing. The barn also includes nest boxes for the hens to lay their eggs in. Water and feeding troughs are raised so that the specially formulated feed is not scattered, and electric lighting is provided to give an optimum day length throughout the year.
Colony cage: Not to be confused with battery cages which are banned across the EU, a colony cage provides the bird ample space to live and lay their eggs comfortably in a nest box. Each colony cage provides enough space for the birds to perch, a scratching area to perform their natural behaviours, a trough fitted to the fronts of the cages for their food and an automatic water supply is also provided. Laying eggs in a nesting area has been shown to be one of the most important needs for laying hens. When the eggs are laid they roll onto a conveyor belt out of reach of the birds to await collection. The environment inside the poultry unit is kept at an even temperature and is well ventilated, and lighting provides an optimum day length throughout the year.
The hens lay their eggs inside the shed in nest boxes. The eggs are laid on a comfortable mat ready for a daily collection. On most commercial laying farms the eggs are collected by a machine and stamped on farm before being collected and taken to the packing centre.
All eggs have to be stamped with a code showing the type of farming system, country of origin and production union. This means that all eggs can be traced back to the farm where they were produced. In addition, British Lion eggs have a best before date and Lion logo on the shell. The first number in the code stands for the farming method: 0 = Organic 1 = Free Range 2 = Barn 3 = Cage The next 2 digits of the code show the country of origin, so UK would be United Kingdom. On Lion code eggs, the next 2 numbers indicate the best before date by day/month. The final digits of the code are the Farm ID – a specific code denoting the actual farm where the eggs were produced. For example, 1UK36623 means that it is a free range egg from the UK, best before the third of June from farm 623.
Once the eggs arrive in the packing house, they go through a series of robotic machines where they are checked for quality. The machines scan the eggs to check their shape and colour and tap them to check the shells for damage. They are then placed into their boxers ready to go out to the consumer.
Hens get different food depending on how old they are. Wheat makes up approximately 60% of the diet; soya bean meal approx. 20%; limestone (needed for eggshell formation) approx. 10%; sunflower meal approx. 5% and soya oil 3-4%. Vitamin and mineral supplements are also added to the diet as required, based on age and life stage. For hens producing organic eggs, the feed ingredients have to be grown organically.
Every farmer has their own creative ways to entertain the hens and keep them occupied. This might be to hang pieces of string around with CDs attached for them to peck, give the birds a football to play with, add extra perches or a dust bath to scratch in or provide vegetables to peck at.
Avian Influenza, commonly known as Avian Flu or Bird Flu, is a virus which occurs naturally among wild birds, which can affect both backyard flock keepers and commercial poultry farmers.
Practicing good biosecurity helps to reduce the risk of the disease, no matter how many birds in the flock. Minimising movement in and out of bird enclosures, cleaning footwear before and after visiting birds, using disinfectant foot and hand wash dips and keeping your flocks feed and water supply away from wild birds are just some of the actions farmers and backyard flock keepers can take.
Commercial poultry farmers practice high levels of biosecurity in order to protect their hens from disease. Biosecurity measures include using foot dips and hand washing sinks, wearing protective clothing and footwear and providing wheel washes for vehicles.
When shopping for eggs in the supermarket keep an eye out for the British Lion stamp which assures that the egg is British, quality checked and produced in a way that keeps the hen happy and healthy. All eggs will be stamped with the letters of their country of origin, so check the egg for UK on their stamp.