Under pressure to stop illegal battery imports to the UK, inspectors are shining new light on cage eggs. The Grocer joins an egg hunt with a difference
Mark Jones carefully picks up an egg with a gloved hand and holds it under the UV light. As he twists and turns the egg in the searing blue haze, the cage marks are clear to see - two parallel white lines running down the length of the shell.
“This,” says Jones, “is what we’re looking for. This is the tell-tale sign.”
Jones is in the business of hunting out bad eggs. A technical expert for Defra’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), he works with 34 egg inspectors across England and Wales to check eggs for quality and food safety. Since 1 January, his work has taken on an important new dimension.
Battery cage eggs became illegal across the EU at the beginning of the year, but a number of countries have yet to become fully compliant, raising fears that British producers - who, after an embarrassing false start in early 2012, are now all compliant - could be undercut by cheaper, illegal imports.
The AHVLA is at the frontline of government efforts to crack down on illegal battery eggs coming to the UK, and I am joining Jones and egg inspector Tony Evans on one of their inspections to see how the AHVLA is rooting out the bad eggs from the good.
It’s a brisk February morning and we’re at Chapel Farm Eggs, a large egg wholesaler near Guildford supplying independent retailers and handling about 5,000 cases of eggs a week. Inspections are unannounced, so there was no way of telling in advance whether Chapel Farm would have any imported eggs on the day of our visit. But we’re in luck - as we wait in the yard, a large lorry pulls in, delivering a consignment of eggs straight from the Netherlands.
The atmosphere is relaxed, even jovial. Inspections are nothing new for importers - eggs are already routinely screened for quality and safety, and the Chapel Farm team knows its local AHVLA inspectors well. As we wait for the workers to unload the lorry, piling box after box into the warehouse, Jones and Evans brief us over coffee in the warehouse kitchenette.
Importers like Chapel Farm see the inspectors as allies, not adversaries, sales and procurement manager Kevin Griffin tells me. “They are our eyes,” he says. “At the end of the day, we buy what we buy, and we expect to get what we buy. The last thing we want is to get some of these illegal eggs.”
Then it’s time for the AHVLA inspectors to get to work. Jones and Evans have set up their inspection equipment in a small, dark annex of the warehouse, into which they now bring samples of Chapel Farm’s eggs. They put on protective gloves and goggles and, one by one, hold each egg under the UV lamp.
“When an egg is laid, it picks up an imprint of the ground it’s laid on, which shows up under the light,” explains Jones. “By looking at the marks on the shells, we can tell what kind of system the egg is from.”
Under the new EU rules, egg producers have had to convert “barren” battery cages, which are made from nothing but wire, to “enriched” cages with nesting areas and floor mats, and the AHVLA has spent months studying cages from different manufacturers to understand exactly what kinds of marks are left by different nesting materials and floors. Jones points to an egg that has shown up pronounced pimples under the UV lamp.
“This is from an Astroturf floor, which we know is what certain nest box manufacturers use,” he says. “Other manufacturers use different types of plastic flooring, so you might get slightly different marks, such as loop effects or webbing, but all of these would be an indication that the egg has been laid in an enriched system.”
By contrast, eggs produced in illegal, barren cages, would show only wire marks - which can be seen as “pole-to-pole” lines under the UV light - as well as “belt marks” left by the belts that transport the eggs from the cages. “The pole-to-pole marks are the key trigger for us,” says Jones. “When we see parallel tram lines on the shell, that is an indication that the eggs might be from a non-enriched system.”
That isn’t to say importers fail their inspection on the evidence of a single egg with cage marks. Even enriched cages are still cages, so it’s perfectly normal to see some eggs with cage marks in a legally produced batch. It’s all in the numbers, says Jones. “We inspect eggs in batches of 90 at a time. Our protocols say if 14% of those eggs have pole-to-pole lines - and there are no nest box marks - that’s enough to put a hold on the consignment.”
The inspectors find nothing suspicious at Chapel Farm, and the company passes its inspection with flying colours, but just a few weeks earlier AHVLA inspectors did indeed uncover a batch of illegal eggs elsewhere in the South East.
So what happens in that case? If imported eggs arouse suspicion during the UV test, the inspectors will first carry out additional sampling and then consult a confidential list of compliant producers, which each EU member state has had to compile, to try to verify if the eggs were produced legally. “If the producer isn’t on that list, we would then put a stop on the eggs and issue a compliance notice, which instructs the importer that they cannot move or market those eggs,” says Jones. “We then carry out follow-up checks, and if we find the importer has breached the compliance notice, they would be liable to prosecution.”
And what happens to the eggs after they have been verified as illegal? Common sense would suggest they are destroyed, but the reality can be rather messier. Jones and his AHVLA colleagues can stop such eggs from being sold to consumers, but a regulatory loophole means they cannot prevent them from being sold on to the processing sector - even if the eggs are known to have come from illegal battery cages.
It all comes down to the difference between Class A and Class B eggs. Class A is what consumers buy in the shops - highest-quality eggs, which are sold in their shells - whereas Class B eggs aren’t fit for direct human consumption but can be used in food processing if they undergo heat treatment.
These eggs come in a number of guises - they can be bought in liquid or powder form, but they can also enter the processing sector as former Class A eggs, which were downgraded because they didn’t meet quality or weight standards. EU egg marketing rules require all Class A eggs to be stamped with a code showing how they were produced, but there is no equivalent requirement for Class B eggs. In theory, this means an egg that started life as an illegally produced Class A egg could - after a downgrade - end up being legitimately used as an ingredient in food processing and manufacturing.
Jones says he can’t disclose what happened to the illegal batch of eggs the AHVLA discovered, but admits it is possible they could have been sold on. “The importer would not have been able to sell them as Class A cage eggs, but theoretically they could have tried to find a processor to turn them into liquid or dried,” he says.
Leading UK manufacturers and processors have signed up to a voluntary code of practice saying they won’t buy these kinds of eggs, but the fact there is nothing in the law to stop downgraded eggs from being sold on remains a headache for the British egg industry.
In fact, this regulatory loophole could make the AHVLA inspections appear rather toothless. After all, if inspectors cannot insist illegal eggs be destroyed, what motivation is there for importers - and the producers they buy from - to stick by the rules? Jones insists there is every reason for importers to take inspections seriously. Class B eggs command a far lower price than Class A eggs, which means importers who are caught with a consignment of illegal Class A eggs incur a hefty financial loss, even if they are able to sell them on to processors.
“Telling them they can’t market their eggs as Class A eggs is the way to really hit them,” he says. And with the AHVLA hitting every major importer with an unannounced UV inspection once a month, importers - and the British egg industry - can be certain that any bad eggs will soon come to light.
Under the glare
UV lamps have been a key part of the egg inspector’s armoury since the 1990s, detecting whether Class A eggs had been washed - a practice prohibited under food safety laws.
But they really came into their own in the early 2000s, when unscrupulous producers tried to make a fast buck passing off cage eggs as free-range. Inspectors used the lamps to pick up cage marks on shells, laying the foundations for the battery cage inspections the AHVLA is carrying out today.
But telling barren from enriched cages by the shell imprint alone required further sophistication. AHVLA technical manager Mark Jones visited different enriched cage systems to familiarise himself with the different marks on the eggs. “We then did some blind tests at wholesale level with inspectors to test our methodology,” he says.
Inspectors even know the measurements of different cages and carry callipers to measure the distance between cage marks.