About the difference between free range and organic eggs, the life of laying hens, the film The Road and a recipe for egg salad with lots of salad.
One of the most harrowing scenes on film I have seen is from The Road. The film takes you into a post-apocalyptic world where all civilization is gone. The main characters, a boy and his father, ventures into a desolated farmhouse in search of food. In the farm’s dark cellar they are not alone. When they light a matchstick, they discover people lying there in a dire condition. This is the larder at the farm.
From battery cages to enriched cages
On 1st January 2012 a new European Union directive came into effect stating that the old battery cages must be replaced by so-called enriched cages. In the old battery cages hens did not have more space than a A4 piece of paper. The cages were barren and consisted only of bars. You do not have to go to animal rights organizations for a dismal description of their life. According to the Norwegian government their life were troubled with bone fragility, broken legs, pecking, anxiety and frustration. Also the system with crammed cages on several floors made it difficult to discover injured animals.
The new regulation was already passed in 1999, but the farmers were given a period of 12 years to transform their farms. In reality being a laying hen is still a life confined to a cage. The enriched cages are just a postcard bigger than the old ones, and the hens still never see sunlight. The biggest change is the facilities of the cage, which is no longer barren but contains a nest, perching space, litter to allow pecking and scratching.
Free-range versus organic eggs
Free-range eggs (or cage free) come from hens that only stay inside. They are not confined to cages but live a crammed life still. Organic hens on the contrary are also free-range but they have access to an outdoor area. Thus they see daylight, but the amount, duration and quality of the outdoor area is not defined. Their fodder is organic and they are not given antibiotics as part of their daily routine, only in the event of an infection.
The road less traveled by
Some choose the road less traveled by. In Norway there are two small farms trying to bring a piece of dignity into the life of their feathered beings. Holte Gård is a small organic farm producing poultry meat and eggs. They have established the first Norwegian on-farm slaughterhouse making it possible for the animals to live and die by a hand they know.
The story of Korsvold Gård is the story of the renowned Norwegian photographer Dag Thorenfeldt who left the urban life of Oslo to establish an organic farm with his wife in the picturesque Hvaler area. Today Korsvold supplies vegetables and eggs to some of the finest delicatessens and restaurants in Norway, including the organic restaurant Maaemo, Norway’s only two-starred Michelin restaurant. Thorenfeldt supplies more than organic produce; he also tells the stories of farm life, portraying the animals through his camera lens. The animals at Korsvold are also slaughtered on-site.
Factory farms and antibiotics in Norway
Norwegian farms are still quite small compared to international standards. 7500 chickens is the limit of farms with free range chickens and about 20000 for meat chickens. Moreover the use of antibiotics is severely controlled in Norway and is mostly used for medical purposes. Since 1995 it has been prohibited to use antibiotics in order to promote the animal’s growth, which is often the case in other countries, although U.S. drug firms recently made a move towards banning the use of antibiotics to fatten livestock. In both Denmark and Sweden though they use more antibiotics, and particularly Denmark has experienced the challenge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in livestock. Still 30 % of our chicken meat are inflicted with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Part of the problem is probably the origin: Most chickens in Norway (along with a total of 130 countries in the world), derive from the Ross chicken delivered by the same company, Aviagen.
In nature hens may live for ten years. Laying hens endure a couple of years. Meat chickens live for 30 days. When the layer hens’ productivity decreases, they are killed. In Norway they are killed by gas after a year. This is how we pay our gratitude to one of the most nutritious and magical food items that exist. The amount of hens destroyed adds up to 3–4 millions a year, only in Norway.
Our grandparents made delicious stews with the retired hens, but today we make our chicken pie with chicken and there is no coq in the coq au vin. In Norway food journalist and international cookbook author Andreas Viestad has created a Facebook page to inspire people to put the hen back on the table. The page, which is called The Ministry of Hen, is a hilarious and serious mix of trivia, pictures, recipes and advice on where to buy old hens.
Into cement, pet food and tomatoes
Retired farm hens, where do they go? In Norway their dead bodies are gathered and driven to one factory with four departments called Norwegian Protein. Here all animal carcasses end, whether animals died from diseases or leftovers from slaughterhouses. Their carcasses are rendered into bio oil and bone meal. While the bio oil is used as fuel and fodder for livestock, the bone meal is recycled into cement and pet food. This is the fate of animal carcasses in other countries too, especially in the US where it figures as cheap protein in dog and cat food.
Bone meal is also used as fertilizer because it is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, so it may well be that your tomatoes, even organic tomatoes, have been fertilized by bone meal, how oddly it may sound.
Born to die
What happens to male chickens? Newly hatched male chickens are simply discarded, either by gas or thrown in a grinder. This is the fate of all male chickens, organic ones too. In Norway this process of selection is done in the hatcheries, hence all farms receive chickens already gender-selected. Male chickens die because they cannot lay eggs and are not optimal as meat.
The reason why the male chickens die is the development of specialized chicken breeds. Before the 1960s chickens were raised with other farm animals and when the laying hens productivity declined they ended up as stewing hens. Since then we have bred two types of chickens with very different abilities: Skinny egg-laying hens that produce eggs and fat meat chickens (broilers), which are ready to be slaughtered after only 30 days.
In Germany there may be a solution to the mass-slaughter of male chickens. Here they have developed a hybrid-breed, Lohmann Dual, suitable for both egg- and meat production. However they new breed has not been welcomed by the market and is less profitable. Its eggs are smaller and it does not lay as much eggs as the pure bred laying hen and its chicken breast are smaller.
Journey into darkness
When I wrote this article I tried purposely to avoid using animal rights sources. I wanted to make the information more objective and less controversial, thus hoping the topic could find a wider audience. Writing this has been a journey of discovery into a darkness I did not comprehend. Most of the information here I never knew of. It is better to eat organic eggs, but I was not aware how eating eggs, even organic eggs, is part of an industry that only appreciate life in terms of commercial value.
It is absurd to serve a recipe with eggs after this odyssey, but I hope and believe it is better to do something than nothing and that shedding light on the story behind the food on our table may contribute to more awareness among consumers.
Egg salad (makes 2 or 3)
This is a healthy version of egg salad with lots of salad. It sustains you with healthy energy to keep you going. But most of all, thank you chickens for all the eggs you give and have given.
4 organic eggs
1 celery stalk
4 spring onions
a handful of flat-leaf parsley
1 small gherkin (about 2 tablespoons)
4 tbsp thick yogurt
4 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon juice
salt and pepper
1. Boil the eggs for 10 minutes until hardboiled. Rinse in cold water and chop finely.
2. Clean and trim the celery, onion and parsley. Finely dice the greens and the gherkin.
3. Mix the yogurt, mayonnaise and lemon juice in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Stir well and add the rest of the ingredients.
4. Serve with sprouts and bread.
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