Organic? Free range? Where did your box of eggs really come from?
The main areas covered by the quality standards include traceability, animal welfare, food safety and hygiene
Free range means that the hens were allowed to strut around for about half of their lifetime outside on land that does not have to be organic
Eggs is eggs, but there’s a surprising amount to be learned from the box and even from the eggs themselves. To start with, when the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme stamp is on an egg box with its Q, shamrock and Irish flag and the words Origin-Ireland, you can be sure the eggs are Irish.
What the Bord Bia mark also tells you is that all steps in the food chain from production to final packaging for sale to the consumer have been assessed by Bord Bia. This includes the farm, packing centre and any processing unit. The main areas covered by the quality standards include traceability, animal welfare, food safety and hygiene. So it’s about much more than provenance. Big operators, such as Greenfield Foods, say that audits are a normal, regular part of business.
“Class A” simply means that you are buying fresh eggs which are suitable for human consumption. You will not see Class B eggs on sale in supermarkets as they go to the food industry or non-food industries. The size of any egg, such as small, medium or large, is set out in guidelines. It is determined by weight. So, for example, an egg that weighs less than 53g is put in the box marked small.
How the hen was reared must be marked on the box under Irish rules. What is somewhat confusing is the use of the terms “organic” or “free range”. Oddly enough, you won’t find those two terms side by side on a box as it is not allowed.
So, for example, a box of “Organic Irish” eggs from Lidl’s Connell Farm brand, has the text “freshly laid by hens with freedom to roam freely on organic pastures”. So the hens are in effect what most people would call free range, with the added provision that they were reared on an organic farm.
The Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) or the Organic Trust set the standards for organic production and you can see the IOFGA stamp on boxes. Organic producers are prohibited from giving antibiotics to healthy birds as a routine preventative measure as is done with some caged or free-range birds. Check out organictrust.ie to get the full information as to what it means.
Free range means that the hens were allowed to strut around for about half of their lifetime outside on land that does not have to be organic. There are no requirements as regards the genetically modified status of their feed at the fattening stage.
Barn hens are those that are raised in big barns, so they have more freedom than caged birds, but not as much as free range. In 2016, fears around avian flu meant that free-range birds had to be kept indoors in barns. So their eggs were labelled as such for that time.
The last category is caged, which means the hen lived in a “furnished” or “enriched” cage, which is a step up from being a battery hen.
How the hen that laid the eggs in any box lived her life is stamped on the egg in a short code much like this one: 1IEA12.
Look at any egg shell that has gone through a regulated Irish processing facility and you will see a stamp on it with an Irish shamrock, a code similar to the one above, and a “best before” stamp.
In the example above, the number 1 means that the egg is free range. Other numbers are 2 for barn, 3 for caged and 0 (zero) for organic.
This is followed by IE, which stands for Ireland. The code for Northern Ireland is UK9.
The next part of the code explains what county the egg came from, and what farm, right down to the individual hen house on that farm in some cases. In the example above, A stands for Co Carlow and 12 is the code for a farm there. All the letters of the alphabet are used. Eggs from Monaghan have the letter R and from Wicklow have the letter Z.
Bigger farms have a letter following the number to denote the actual hen house.