The difference between free range and organic eggs – and London's producers


The difference between free range and organic eggs is not always clear - Credit: Julia Kirby-Smith

Do you prefer your eggs boiled, poached or sunny-side up? And does it matter where they’ve come from and how they’ve been produced?

Britons eat more than 13 million eggs a year, with the majority produced in the UK since imports have fallen in recent years. Most of us agree that free-range eggs are a good idea – both for welfare and quality reasons – but the difference between free-range and organic is not always clear.

There are five main differences, with the first being flock size. The Soil Association allows a maximum flock of 2,000, compared with intensively-reared free-range birds where flocks can be up to 30,000.⁠ Organic chickens are also required to have more outside space, access to the outdoors from 12 weeks old, and must not be fed on GM grain or routinely given antibiotics.⁠

Outdoor foraging means chickens eat a mixture of plants, grubs and insects. Many people say that the tastiest eggs come from chickens that eat a rich and varied diet, so foraging means flavour.

One of the least-known differences between free-range and organic is that beak-trimming is banned in organic farming. This practice is used to prevent birds from hurting each other through feather-pecking and even cannibalism – both of which are known to be indications of stress, and are common on industrially-run egg farms. The RSPCA is campaigning for a ban on beak-trimming, but it's still common practice even on free-range hens.⁠ Birds which have had their beaks clipped cannot forage properly, so they end up eating more grain feed than plants and insects.

At least free-range rather than caged is going to become the norm: all major retailers in the UK have committed to stop selling eggs laid by caged hens by 2025. But if you’re looking to move away from supermarkets and buy more local and/or organically produced eggs, there are various options.

If you want “laid in London” then Forty Hall Farm in Enfield sells its own eggs in the farm shop as does Brooks City Farm in Leyton. Both are run by Capel Manor College, which teaches courses on agriculture, animal management, forestry and horticulture, and is the only specialist environmental college in London. The London Farmers' Markets website lists twenty local egg producers who sell at their markets – from Rookery Farm near Bognor Regis, to Clover Free Range Eggs who are based at Hillview Farm near Royston on the Cambridgeshire/Hertfordshire border. Most are organic but some are not - but it's worth noting that this can sometimes be due to the cost of gaining organic certification. Farmers’ Markets are a great way to meet the people who make our food and support them by buying directly.

One organic egg producer close to London is Orchard Eggs based at Brambletye Farm in East Sussex. Their eggs can be bought from a number of shops, veg-box schemes and markets across the city, and we stock them at our urban farm shop Fridge of Plenty in Crouch End

Orchard Eggs practice Biodynamic Agriculture, which is a method of organic farming developed in the 1920s by Dr Rudolf Steiner. While there are aspects of biodynamic farming (burying crystals in the soil?) that all seem rather New Age, the concept of a farm as a balanced “organism” that works best as a self-sufficient ecosystem is an interesting one.

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So how do you like your eggs? The choice is more than just how you cook them.

Julia Kirby-Smith runs Fridge of Plenty in Crouch End

Julia Kirby-Smith runs Fridge of Plenty in Crouch End - Credit: Courtesy Julia Kirby-Smith

Julia Kirby-Smith is director of Fridge of Plenty in Crouch End and a trustee of the food charity Feedback.