Harmless pun or fraud in egg business?


PHOTO: Mailiis Ollino

When we study the codes printed on egg packages or eggshells themselves, we learn that “farm eggs”, “rural eggs” and “cottage eggs” come from industrial farms rather than a rural idyll. Estonian egg producer explains that this shows their domestic origin as a way of countering foreign mass production.

“Fresh rural eggs from Põlva County, South Estonia,” the firm named Lõuna-Eesti Talumuna OÜ advertises its eggs, having brought the rural egg brand “Muna Liisa” to the market half a year ago. The package depicts a woman holding a hen and chicken pecking at grain to a background of twigs.

But the smallest print on the label reveals that there is no idyll: the “rural eggs” are laid by regular caged hens. Some very competent consumers can tell it from the code printed on the egg. The initial number three designates cage eggs.

The other enterprise OÜ Linnu Talu sells “cottage eggs” with especially yellow yolk. But the code on the egg again disperses the image of free-range hens. The hens of Linnu Talu live in cages but are fed natural carotenoids to make the yolk yellow.

“People believe that a cottage means a dozen free-range hens, but these days it is an industry,” says Astre Jaagant, head of OÜ Linnu Talu. Jaagant says that the eggs are sold as “cottage eggs” because the firm is called Linnu Talu (“Bird Cottage”).

“What is a rural egg and a regular egg is a philosophical issue,” speculated Tõnu Vetik, board member of Lõuna-Eesti Talumuna OÜ, which keeps 120,000 hens. They have “country eggs” because the eggs lay them in Põlva County.

There are more examples of “cottage” and “rural” eggs.

Vetik explained how their company uses the “rural egg” term to point out that this is a domestic product. “We produce the fodder in our own fields and we know what we feed the hens,” Vetik added.

He said that it is difficult to compete with the Latvian egg industry giant Balticovo, which has 2.8 million hens laying 1.8 million eggs daily. Compared with this huge industry, Estonian-produced eggs actually deserve their “rural” and “cottage” title.

Lie as an argument

Several grocery chains buy eggs from Balticovo and other foreign enterprises and sell cheaply under their own brand. Even Rimi does it, although it has claimed that it will end the sale of cage eggs by 2025.

Katrin Bats, Rimi PR head, stated that 90 percent of sold eggs come from industrial farms. “There is a lot of explaining to do,” she said.

Bats said that Rimi cannot sell under its own brand only eggs from local barn egg producers, since the Estonian firms often cannot supply the required amount at an acceptable price. Cage eggs come from Estonia and Lithuanian, barn eggs only from Lithuania.

“They take an egg, place it in the shopping basket and no one knows who the producer is or how the hens are kept,” Vetik said.

Lauri Bobrovski, manager of OÜ Äntu Mõis, which sells organic eggs of free-range hens, does not approve that eggs from caged hens are sold as cottage eggs. “A lie is not an argument to be used for standing out,” said Bobrovski, whose firm’s henhouse holds over 10,000 birds.

Vetik admits that the whole Western world is moving towards barn eggs which are designated by an egg code with an initial 2. Barn farming essentially means that the hens can move around some more between open cages but live in a building. Vetik’s firm has so far only regular cages, since open cages require more money and the hens eat more since they are more active.

On the other hand, Linnu Talu has approximately one third of barn-system hens. “We are trying to get rid of cages since Europe is allegedly giving up on battery eggs,” Jaagant said.

But the veteran farmer was unable to say whether barn hens live necessarily better than those in modified cages. According to Jaagant, today’s cage hens cannot complain – they have a perch, a nest box and some room for movement.

Jaagant speculated that barn-kept hens may look a little better. “The hen may have slightly better conditions, but not significantly,” said the manager of the farm with some 80,000 hens. But Jaagant added that if there is a need for a large amount of eggs, the birds cannot have too much comfort. “If you want to produce in millions and feed the whole world, it is simply not possible. They all would not fit in an open chicken run,”

There is no difference in quality between barn and cage eggs, since the fodder is the same. “As a farmer I can say that the taste of the egg depends on fodder,” Jaagant says.

Buyers prefer cheaper

Linnu Talu can offer barn eggs, but since these are more expensive, the stores mainly order cage eggs, Jaagant says. This is why Linnu Talu sometimes packs barn eggs as cage eggs and sells them cheap so as not to waste them.

“People buy what is cheaper. Even the rich want cheaper,” Jaagant says.

“Why should a box of eggs and liter of milk in plastic bag cost 50-60 cents while a bottle of water costs up to two euros,” asked the organic farmer Bobrovski, whose sells a box of organic eggs for three euros, while the cheapest box costs approximately one euro.

Bobrovski says that eggs and milk are sold too cheap and that means problems for the producers. “They are in trouble because their produce is underpriced,” said Bobrovski, who pointed pout that organic products are more expensive than regular ones but ensure better welfare for the animals.

The Consumer Protection Board announced that it is not supervising eggs or their designations, since this is a job for the Veterinary and Food Board. The latter announced last Thursday that it takes time to answer the daily’s questions and answers would be sent only this week.

The Ministry of Rural Affairs stated that according to the Food Act, both the Consumer Protection Board and the Veterinary and Food Board supervise the providing of information. The ministry added that information cannot be misleading.

The EU regulation determine how to designate eggs, but one has to know how to read the egg code or the small print on the label.

How to read the egg code?

The first number on the egg and the package code designates the type of farming.

0 – organic farming. Free-range hens who are fed organic fodder.

1 – free-range hens. The birds have access to hen runs.

2 – barn eggs. The hens live in cages on several levels and can move between them.

3 – cage eggs. The law determines precisely what kind of cages can be used. Estonia uses modified cages with a nest box, a perch, litter for pecking and scratching and claw blunting. A cage must have at least 750 square centimeters of floor space per hen and the overall area of the cage must be at least 2,000 square centimeters.

The number is followed by the producer country code (EE-Estonia, LV- Latvia, LT-Lithuania).

The final entry is a five-figure identification code of the firm issued by the Agricultural Registers and Information Board.