Once upon a time, choosing which eggs to buy at the local supermarket was a simple mission, but in recent years consumers have been faced with a wide variety of choices with confusing names. Today’s shoppers are faced with eggs labelled with names such as cage free, free range, organic, and so on.

In order to try to clarify this topic, we interviewed Stanley Kaye, a poultry and business consultant at Agrotop.

Dan: The idea for this interview was born following the publishing of an article which stated that, for the first time, the number of cage-produced eggs passing through UK packing stations was lower than the volume coming from non-cage production. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, eggs from enriched cages accounted for only 49 percent of those passing through packing stations during the second quarter of this year, the remainder being free range, barn or organic. As a consumer, I was quite surprised. I have always thought that eating free range eggs is a noble ideal, but not affordable for most people.

Stanley: If you would have asked me 10 to 15 years ago whether it was possible that there would be a mass market for non-cage eggs, I would have doubted it. When I grew up in England, the only people who bought free-range eggs were very dedicated ideological animal lovers, or yuppies who could afford to follow a fad.

Dan: So what has happened?

Stanley: Obviously, there are multiple reasons coming from both the demand and supply sides. Before we go on, I want to reverse the tables and ask you a question.

Dan: OK.

Stanley: When you read the article about non-cage eggs how did you think that the chickens were being raised?

Dan: Well, if they were not in cages they must be free range small flocks roaming mainly outside in fields.

Stanley: What you think is typical of what many or most consumers think, but this is not really the situation.

First, note that the article refers to non-cage eggs. There are a few ways of growing eggs not in cages. Sometimes the lines are blurred, but the basic division is between barn eggs, free-range eggs and pasture eggs.

Initially, the EU moved all production to enriched colonies; these are larger cages, with less crowding and with extra elements to enrich the lives of the hens. Though billions were spent, this system is still regarded by consumers as a cage system, thus the need to find alternatives.

Barn eggs are laid when the hens are grown inside a poultry shed. They can be raised in large numbers – 10,000 in a shed is common. In the shed, there will be an automatic nesting system, that is, the hens will lay their eggs in a way that they can be automatically collected.

The shed might be quite crowded, but the hens have freedom to move throughout the shed (like broiler chickens). Economically, the aim of this system is to get the same performance from the hens (feed conversion, number of eggs, clean eggs, etc.) that can be achieved in cage systems but with not too much added cost.

Dan: How is this achieved?

Stanley: One of the key elements is the nesting system. It was necessary to find a way to ensure that the vast majority of eggs (well over 95%) are laid in the nests and not on the floor.

Once they are laid in the nests, they can be automatically collected, which saves significant labor costs. Imagine searching for and picking up tens or hundreds of thousands of eggs each day!

Besides this, the quality of the egg depends on it being laid in the nest and not on the floor. If it is in the nest, it will be collected daily so we know that it is fresh. If collected from the floor, some time might pass before the egg is found. If it is in the nest, it will be clean, but if it is found on the floor the egg is likely to be dirty from hen feces. In addition, the egg is more likely to be cracked or broken.

Dan: So what are free-range eggs? What is the difference between free-range eggs and pasture eggs?

Stanley: Basically, commercial free-range eggs are from a shed for barn eggs, but there will be “pop holes” that allow the birds to go outside at certain times or according to weather conditions.

Pasture eggs, on the other hand, are collected from hens that live in small groups in fields with some sort of small coop. These eggs will be collected by hand.

There is, of course, a spectrum between commercial free-range and pasture eggs. Pasture eggs will be much more expensive to grow than any other commercial way. They also require intensive labor (collecting eggs) and much land.

There are also disadvantages to hand-collected outside eggs, as well as biosecurity and public health concerns. So, for example, in the UK and many other countries, during the bird flu epidemic last winter there was a ban on birds being outside.

Dan: Wouldn’t the fact that birds are not allowed out affect commercial free-range eggs in the same way as pasture eggs?

Stanley: A commercial free-range shed can be closed and the birds kept inside. This is done when the weather is not comfortable for the hens outside. Thus, they could be easily kept inside during the bird flu epidemic.

Dan: Which sort of system do you think is the best for the hens themselves?

Stanley: There is research into hen preferences, but I am not sure how rigorous it is at this stage. I do see, though, that very often when the pop-holes are open, most (90% or more) of the hens prefer to stay inside even when they have the option to go outside.

Thus, looking at this behavior it seems that they feel safer and more comfortable inside rather than outside. Perhaps, like a city person given the option of being outside in nature all day, many would prefer the comforts of being inside.

Dan: So which system do you prefer?

Stanley: At Agrotop, we are happy to develop and build any of the commercial systems. Our company mission is to provide high-quality sustainable solutions for affordable food production. Therefore, pasture eggs are really outside this framework as they will be very expensive and affordable only for the very rich or very dedicated.

I think that the conditions in which poultry is grown will be determined by the consumers voting through the market or through government regulation. I think that what is needed now is that there should be binding standards or regulations so that the eggs that consumers buy will be grown in the way the consumer thought they were grown.

This way, the system of growing will reflect what the customers want and are prepared to pay for.

Dan: Doesn’t having so many systems make life difficult for companies such as Agrotop? Wouldn’t it be easier if there was a universal standard?

Stanley: Indeed not. The opposite is true. First, we are a company that is passionate about our work and projects. We see meeting customers’ different requirements as challenges rather than problems.

Second, the fact that each customer wants a different solution enables us, as a knowledge company, to be able to maximize our benefit to the client. Clients in the UK, for example, might be faced with a new regulatory challenge or demand from the supermarket that they don’t know how to answer.

We will use our combined knowledge and experience to help our customers find the best and most economical solution. It is very likely that the same issue has been faced (and solved) in Australia or New Zealand.

In the same way, a client in the Philippines might benefit from our experience in Vietnam, which has a similar tropical climate and level of consumer and economic development.