There are big differences between hens grown for egg production and those grown for meat. While they are all part of the same chicken family, the breeds, housing systems and lifecycles can be very different indeed.
Egg-laying hens typically start laying eggs at around six months of age. It is only the females that lay eggs, which means there is usually no purpose for the males in the egg-production system. These males chickens are usually of the wrong breed to make efficient meat chickens, and therefore they tend to be killed while still a day-old chick – a sad reality of the egg-production system. However, they are usually killed using a method that is instantaneous, with minimal stress to the birds.
Egg-laying hens are housed in variety of systems. These will always vary from farm to farm and country to country, but are generally as follows:
1. Organic, which are free to roam indoors and outdoors
2. Free-range, which are free to roam indoors and outdoors
3. Indoor, but free to roam and express natural behaviours
4. Caged in larger “enriched” cages
5. Caged in small cages
At the Jamie Oliver Group, we only use or endorse eggs produced by methods 1-3. We believe the minimum standards for an egg-laying hen should be within an indoor barn, with freedom to roam, and meeting a form of higher-welfare criteria. This means the mental and physical needs of the hen have been considered, and must be managed in line with strict standards.
We don’t believe it’s ever right for hens to be kept in cages, which restrict their ability to move about and behave naturally. Small cages are now illegal in Europe, although they are still widely used in many other parts of the world. The larger, “enriched” cages are still used across the UK and Europe, with some people believing they are humane. We disagree, and have campaigned for an end to all caged egg production. Many others agree with us, and in the UK M&S, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s all refuse to sell caged eggs.
If you are able to trade up to free-range or organic eggs, this can be even better, depending on the farm where they were produced. The European Union sets minimum standards for how free-range eggs should be produced, but this does not apply to all parts of the world. Many different countries and retailers describe their eggs differently, and it can be difficult to know who to trust. For example, does it make sense to buy a free-range egg in a country where it is too cold for the hens to go outdoors? And what does “hormone-free” actually mean?
Third party certifications can be useful ways of recognising better products, but again, there are so many to choose from. The ones we know and trust include Freedom Food, Soil Association, RSPCA Approved, Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved. At Jamie Oliver, whether it’s for our restaurants, our shops or our branded products, we only use higher-welfare barn, free-range or organic eggs. In 2014 we received The Good Egg Award as official recognition of our standards of purchasing from Compassion In World Farming.