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.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the entire food chain. The sudden closure of the out of home market (restaurants, cafes, pubs) resulted in disruption while food and drink was diverted into supermarkets, and eggs were no exception.
The restrictions imposed to control the spread of the virus meant that more people were eating all meals at home. This saw an unprecedented demand for eggs with people eating eggs for breakfast and baking more. In May 2020 alone there was a 30% increase in demand at retail.
Before the pandemic, 41% of British eggs went into foodservice and food processing. These eggs don’t go into the traditional egg boxes and tend to be packed on trays of 30. The redirection of these eggs into retail in a fairly short time frame meant that there was an increased demand for retail packaging.
You might therefore see different pack sizes, colours and packaging material on supermarket shelves while retailers work to keep up with demand. Don’t forget to look for the British Lion logo when shopping in the main supermarket chains to be sure you are buying British eggs.
The colour of the egg shell is dependent on the breed of the hen.
Traditionally the British consumer has favoured brown eggs, but there are a variety of other colours out there.
White eggs make up around 1% of total production in the UK and they are predominantly utilised by the food service sector including fast food restaurants. Other than the colour of the shell there are very few differences between brown and white eggs, and you won’t be able to tell the difference.
When shopping in the supermarket look out for the British Lion logo on the packaging. This shows that the eggs have been produced in line with the British Lion code and to some of the highest welfare standards in the world.
You might notice in smaller retailers, local shops and farm shops the Laid in Britain logo. Keeping an eye out for the Union Flag will give you assurance that you are buying British eggs and supporting British farmers.
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 200 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.
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.
The UK egg industry is worth over £1 billion to the UK economy and provides 13,000 jobs.
Source: British Egg Industry Council
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.
Did you know that you can freeze eggs?
Eggs can be frozen for up to a year, although it’s recommended to use them within 4 months for freshness. First of all, each egg needs to be cracked out of its shell. The egg white and yolk will expand when frozen, so if left intact this could damage or break the shell. Only freeze eggs which are fresh and in date. To freeze eggs whole, the white and yolk will need to be beaten together. Pour the contents into a container suitable for the freezer, label with the date, seal and freeze. Frozen eggs in any form need to be fully thawed to be used and can only be eaten in thoroughly cooked dishes.
When shopping for eggs in the supermarket keep an eye out for the British Lion stamp and other UK assurance schemes including Laid In Britain. Such schemes 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.