Cramped battery cages were banned across the EU in 2012, but animal welfare experts agree that new and so-called improved “enriched” cages are not a great deal better. The birds have slightly more room to move than in conventional battery cages – 13 to 14 hens per square metre and a few furnishings – but their ability to behave naturally remains severely restricted. Beak trimming is routine. If you want eggs laid by happy hens, avoid caged, which means the cheapest eggs, including some supermarket value ranges. If you must opt for caged, make sure they bear the British Lion symbol so you know they were British-laid; some EU countries flout the law and continue to keep hens in battery cages. Some retailers such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op and Marks & Spencer, no longer sell eggs from caged birds.
If price is an important issue for you, opt for barn eggs rather than caged if possible. Barn-raised hens can roam freely indoors and perform many of their natural behaviours, like dust bathing and scratching. They also have platforms to perch on to escape pecking and nest boxes for laying eggs. But most barn-raised hens stay inside all their lives and in comparatively crowded conditions, with up to nine hens per square meter. Beak trimming is routine.
About 50 per cent of all eggs produced in the UK are free-range – laid by hens that enjoy unlimited daytime access to runs that have vegetation, and at least four square metres of outside space per bird. At night, free-range hens are housed in barns furnished with bedding and perches, with nine hens allowed per square meter of inside space. But there is no limit on flock size, a fact exploited by some producers. Beak trimming is commonly practiced, except for most free-range British Blacktail eggs.
According to Compassion in World Farming, organically reared hens offer the highest potential standards of animal welfare. They enjoy more access to the outdoors than non-organic free-range birds and less crowded living conditions indoors – up to six hens per square meter in flocks of no more than 3000. Routine beak trimming is not permitted