Riverford Wicked Leeks

a difficult question about eggs

How do you picture a flock of organic laying hens?

Grazing and scratching in small flocks from movable houses surrounded by grass, displaying natural behaviour and laying tasty eggs? Or in flocks of 9000, beaks clipped and raised non-organically to 16 weeks, rarely emerging from huge houses stinking of ammonia and surrounded by mud, with barely a blade of grass in sight - and consequently laying eggs as bland as those from battery hens?

Both set-ups can legally be described as organic. If you buy organic eggs not certified by the Soil Association or Demeter from a supermarket (except Waitrose who, to their credit, insist on higher standards) you will probably get the latter.

For the last decade a political battle has been waged over standards for organic egg production. The Soil Association has consistently argued for higher standards. Larger producers and the other main certifying bodies have argued to keep the lowest standards legally permissible and have dragged their feet at every turn to keep production costs low.

The larger the flock, the less chance that the pasture will be maintained around the house and the harder it is to move the houses regularly. Ethically-motivated producers encourage their hens to forage by providing shade, feed and water outside and by having plenty of easy exit points onto nearby pasture. This all costs money. We can debate the maximum flock size to achieve a reasonable compromise between welfare and cost: 100, 200, 500 perhaps. Even the 2000 permitted by the Soil Association stretches credibility but has been adopted to give their producers a chance of competing financially.

We aim to make organic food affordable to everyone and believe in considered and pragmatic compromises rather than dogmatic ideology to achieve this. In the case of eggs there is no avoiding the reality that doing the job properly costs money. Those producers working to higher standards deserve acknowledgement and support. Our Soil Association producers can now meet our needs and we have decided that from this week we will only sell Soil Association certified eggs. Our SA eggs come from a range of producers, some with flocks of 50 running in orchards, some with flocks of 200 and others with flocks up to 1500. We plan to work with our suppliers so that within two years we can offer eggs from flocks of no more than 500 even if this involves charging more.

Guy Watson