I often think about what exactly it is that draws me to food and food writing. Obviously, there is the fact that I am a glutton, greedy to sample anything and everything that can possibly pass my lips on this planet of ours. There is also the creativity that comes with cooking; I've always loved all sorts of creative acts - drawing, painting, writing, music - and food is perhaps the most unselfish creative act there is, in that it brings not only happiness to people but also fulfils one of the most basic physical human needs. What makes me love not only cooking and eating food, but also reading and writing obsessively about it, is the way it is fundamentally and inextricably linked with so many other things. Just look at the way the credit crunch brought about a huge change in the way people cook and eat, the way Jamie Oliver started extolling the virtues of back-to-basics cooking in a way that made people think twice before reaching for the phone to dial an expensive takeaway. Or the way our concerns with environmental sustainability have impacted on food, prompting a huge rethink in the way we catch and consume fish. Or the way food is so closely bound up with national identity, yet at the same time crosses cultural boundaries like nothing else; it is often said that the British national dish is now curry, a fact certainly evident from the dishes that have made the final of Great British Menu recently: coronation chicken, Indian spiced sea bass, masala-spiced monkfish. Food is not just something to be eaten as fuel; it is bound up with a whole host of sociopolitical, economic, and ethical concerns. When you hear the words veal, cod, bluefin tuna, farmed salmon, you are no longer listening to a list of appetising things for dinner, but a collection that invokes a whole host of issues that go far beyond the plate.
The same is true of eggs and chicken. I'd like to think that most people in this country are at least partially aware of the horrors of battery farming, though I am frequently confronted with examples that prove that, sadly, this is not the case. A friend of mine remarked that he doesn't care where his chicken has come from, provided he gets to eat it. This kind of thing shocks and disgusts me. Hens are crammed into cages, often with less space per hen than a piece of A4 paper, allowing them no room to move freely or stretch their wings. This creates an increase in disease, cannibalism, and odd pecking behaviours caused by boredom and stress. If you want more horrible details about the conditions in which your chicken and eggs are produced, read here or here. Hideously, it is estimated at 60% of the world's eggs are produced in these conditions. It basically amounts to torture, and yet it's sanctioned and taking place all around us.
What really surprises me about people who buy battery eggs is that they're barely any cheaper than free-range. Surely for about 30p more per half dozen, you could get eggs that don't come with such a horrible ethical burden. When it comes to chicken for eating, free-range chickens are often a bit more expensive than the pallid, blue-tinged, shrink-wrapped specimens on the supermarket shelves, so naturally people are inclined towards those without sparing a thought for the conditions in which the chicken was raised. I firmly believe this is an issue of supply and demand. Because, as a culture, we are obsessed with the idea that a meal is not a meal unless it contains meat, we are driven to purchasing lower quality, less ethical meat simply to satisfy our own demand for the stuff. Personally I would rather go vegetarian for a few days each week, then save up and buy a really gorgeous free-range chicken to roast for lunch at the weekend. What's the point in filling meals with tasteless, chewy, battery-farmed chicken breast just for the sake of having some meat involved? I'd much rather have a chicken that tasted of something and that I treated with respect, making the most of it for its chicken-ness rather than to fill an animal-protein gap that culturally I have been made to believe exists.
I don't want this to sound like a lecture, and I know a lot of people can't afford free range chicken all the time. But the simple solution, to me, is to just eat less meat and buy better when you can. That doesn't sound so difficult to me. If we didn't all buy this horrible stuff, consumers would stop producing it. M&S and Waitrose no longer sell battery eggs, a fact that makes me happy, and other supermarkets like Sainsbury's are planning to phase out battery eggs. However, there is another problem: while you can go free-range when buying boxes of eggs from the shelf or a chicken from the meat counter, you have no way of telling where the eggs come from in a lot of products. Mayonnaise, for example, and ready-meals containing eggs, like quiche. 3 billion eggs go into these processed food products each year, a third of which are imported, and even if Britain did ban caged eggs altogether, there would be no clear way of identifying which eggs were free-range and which were imported from battery farms. Hellmans recently started selling a free-range mayonnaise, though, which I suppose is a step forward. The government plans to phase out battery farms totally by 2012, but there is a lot of contention as to whether this will actually happen. Especially because I read an article recently saying there was a plan to bring back battery rabbit farming. Why on earth, given all the controversy over battery chicken, would you actually take the active step of implementing further horrors on other animals?
As the old saying goes, which came first: the chicken or the egg? I believe it is a case of putting the chickens first, not the need for cheap eggs.
For most battery hens, their life will be a miserable journey from cage to slaughter, once they have passed their peak egg-laying potential. However, the British Hen Welfare Trust, set up in 2005, is a charity that aims to give ex-battery hens a new lease of life. Each year they save approximately 60,000 hens from slaughter by giving them to people to adopt as pets. The BHWT was actually responsible for bringing about the Hellman's free range mayonnaise, and aims to educate people about the horrors of battery farming and what they can do as consumers to make informed choices regarding egg-containing products. Most importantly, they turn battery hens into happy hens, giving them up for adoption by people who can provide space for the hens to roam. If you don't have space for your own hens, you can sponsor a hen for a small cost to guarantee it a better life. I am incredibly keen to have my own hens at some point - you really can't beat fresh eggs, and it's not always apparent, but supermarket eggs may have been lying around for weeks before sale. I remember staying in Italy on a farm in Perugia a few summers ago, and eating eggs still warm from the chickens for breakfast. They're not only tastier, but also better for a variety of culinary usages - it's well known that only fresh eggs will poach properly.
My friend Laura recently adopted some ex-battery hens from the Trust, and I was lucky enough to be given some of their eggs to sample. I thought they were delicious; much more flavoursome than supermarket eggs. Laura tells me that now the hens have been out of the battery farm for a bit longer, the eggs are even better (I look forward to receiving another batch). The hens were a bit scrawny and decrepit-looking when she first got them, but she tells me that she has noticed "such a difference in their perkiness and featheriness already". You can see some photos here of the happy hens (Eliza, Matilda, Jennifer and Prudence), freed from their hideous prisons. I imagine it must be immensely satisfying to watch their journey from traumatised, brutalised animal into freely roaming, happy outdoor hen. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, too: happiness for the hens, and yummy eggs for the human. It also just goes to show that, despite a large part of their lives being spent in such traumatic conditions, a hen is not a worthless creature to be discarded afterwards. They are susceptible to habilitation, and I think it's great that charities like the British Hen Welfare Trust are working to achieve this. To transform a hen from a scraggy, tormented thing to a proud and splendid animal is something I envy all ex-battery hen-adopters.
So if you're reading this, I hope you'll consider changing your egg and chicken-buying habits if you haven't already. Think of poor Eliza, Matilda, Jennifer and Prudence. And if you are considering getting hens, definitely have a look at the BHWT's website - there's loads of useful information on there about getting your hens (they're free, but they suggest a small donation to help maintain the charity), caring for them, recommended vets, etc. There's also a lot of information about British free-range chicken farmers and the need for an educated, egg-wise consumer.
And, below - what better way to eat delicious, free-range, fresh eggs than poached on toast with a generous helping of smoked salmon? Guilt-free indulgence. Thank you Laura!