City dweller walks on eggshells down the hen-house


THERE IS a major egg shortage in Europe, but you would not think so if you were standing in a giant hen-house in Monaghan. The eggs of the 150,000 hens here roll out on to a wire grid, and the wire grid holds each egg for a while, to let it dry. Egg production is pretty basic stuff. And so is animal welfare.

This huge hen-house in Monaghan contains the new, more humane units for hens that became the EU requirement on January 1st.

No one is supposed to talk of cages anymore – although naturally people do, from force of habit. The hens live in colonies now. And it was the introduction of these colonies, commendable in every way, that finally set the egg shortage rolling. An egg shortage so severe that food-processing businesses across Europe are talking of closure. “The processing price was 35 or maybe 40 cent a dozen,” says John Mohan of Greenfield Foods egg packers. “Now it’s a euro per dozen.”

The shortage came about for a number of reasons, but was chiefly caused by the introduction of the colony system, which the EU decided on in 1999. “Probably most farmers thought it would be phased in,” says Gerard Caulfield, John Mohan’s partner in Greenfield. “But it was a welfare issue and Brussels came out very strongly when the deadline approached and said, ‘Youse have had it long enough, boys. Take it or leave it.’ ”

Farmers were not ready for the change. Old farmers closed up altogether. Younger farmers found that their banks would not give them credit to construct the new hen accommodation. Production across Europe fell. “They reckon that France is short 20 million eggs per week,” says Mohan. (In Ireland we eat 165 eggs per head per annum.) The Government extended grants to our farmers to build the new houses.

“But Northern Ireland got nothing. The guys supplying the wholesale market didn’t invest and now they’re playing catch up. The supermarket trade is cleaned out every week. The small packers are coming down here looking for producers.”

In the hen-house there are 70 birds to each of the famous colonies. Each colony contains a scratch pad, and three levels of perching and three feed areas. Things have changed quite a bit. “When we started, it was 450cm per bird,” says Caulfield, who has been in eggs since he was too small to collect them off the higher shelves.

“Then in 1996, it went to 550. Now it’s gone to 750 and it can go to 890.”

Each corridor of colonies is 300m long and an unsettling sight. The hens look healthy and lively and they poke their brown heads out of the colonies to have a good look at you. “They’re inquisitive,” as Caulfield says. There is no fighting or sign of injury on any bird. Caulfield doesn’t even like using the adjective “dominant”: “The stronger personalities go to the highest perch.”

Hens are, perhaps understandably, nervous. When I wave my notebook in an abrupt manner they grow alarmed and the sound of 150,000 alarmed hens is not for the fainthearted. Later on, we visit a farm from which my exorbitantly expensive organic eggs might come. The hens here are kept in a huge barn, which they seem to like because most of them are wandering around on the straw inside it. Only a minority are clucking about on the mud outside, and they don’t seem too relaxed either. This is because they can hear an agricultural machine buzzing away in the distance.

Ireland has 2.2 million hens. Feed prices have gone up dramatically and feed is the producers’ biggest cost, at €280 per ton. The feed needed to produce organic eggs is double that. It is the quality of the feed that defines whether an egg is organic, not the conditions in which the hen is kept. Organic hens come from free-range hens on a posh diet.

At a time when even hospitals employ private public-relations companies, it is unusual to find an organisation as open to The Irish Times as Greenfield Foods. But then every aspect of the egg producing and packing on this site, which produces 60 per cent of the Republic’s eggs, is examined regularly.

“We have 12 different audits per year,” says Caulfield. “It’s painful. McDonald’s starts with the staff.” Aldi is especially meticulous, apparently.

In a little white room, which is called the lab, each batch of eggs is spot checked for weight, thickness of shell, density of yolk colour and so on. “Some people like big eggs,” says Caulfield. “There’s a powerful market for big eggs in Dublin. You send a man out to buy eggs and he’ll buy the biggest he can.”

The freshness of an egg is judged by cracking it on to a stainless steel tray, and seeing how far the white comes up the yolk. The further up it comes, the fresher the egg. This particular yolk is barely peeping out of its ocean of white. This is a strange sight for a city dweller.

An extraordinary range of eggs is packed here, from organic eggs for major supermarkets to the O-Megga eggs whose hens have been fed salmon oil; from the corn-fed free-range eggs with their bright orange eggs to the Ballyfree brand; to the Value eggs, also for the supermarkets, which cost €2.59 for 18 – an extraordinary price given the volatility of the past 12 months.

It is up to the consumer to decide whether the cost of what used to be called “caged” eggs should stay that low.