Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Free range and other eggs in Japan - vocabulary, ethics and sources

To pick up a thread I started in this post about the ethics involved in supplier choices, today I got cracking on some further egg research. (The Japanese vocabulary is about halfway down the post.)

Organic free range eggs, with farmer's photo

Japanese people eat a lot of eggs, estimated over 300 a year per person (compared to Australia's 213 and Mexico's 365). The demand for eggs and egg products in Japan is greater than the domestic supply and so Japan imports a considerable amount, and does not export. The chart on this page shows that in terms of whole-shell egg production, Japan is closer to self-sufficiency than for many other food stuffs, importing generally less than 10%. Higher percentages of dried egg and liquid yolk and albumen are imported however. Japan's overall food self-sufficiency is low, reported at 40%, meaning 60% of food consumed in Japan is currently imported, and so it was a nice surprise to see an area where Japan appears to be faring well. Most of the whole, shell-eggs you'll see in supermarkets here then will be domestically produced.

There are quite a few interesting small domestic farms taking great care to produce eggs with the aim of superior quality and often also via humane methods that aren't possible in larger enterprises. This article estimates that just 6-7% of Japanese egg output is automated. (If all these statistics are correct, then over 34 billion eggs are being produced domestically, by non-automated methods...) Some of these small farms sell directly to the public and businesses online, as well as in your local supermarkets. I'll include some links at the bottom of this post.

You might notice a strange obsession of those farms with the fact you can pick up the yolk by its membrane using your fingers, or stand toothpicks up in it and it doesn't break like regular yolks, something I've only ever seen extolled on Japanese sites. Have a look :) Though I wonder if this could be more to do with the freshness, as all eggs start off firmer and denature over time, becoming more runny (good for making macarons!).

Above - a further 3 free range egg brands

Here's some Japanese terminology for those looking for help to make informed decisions in the Japanese supermarket.
  • The two main terms used to describe free range are 平飼い / hiragai and 放し飼い / hanashigai.
Hiragai translates literally as 'flat kept' and hanashigai is like 'let lose'. Though these terms are used interchangeably by many people, in 2004 the Japan Free Trade Council requested that an official agreement be made regarding the labelling of eggs to reduce confusion for consumers. Hiragai means that the chickens are not caged and can walk around freely. Whether they are kept indoors or have access to outside is not specified by this wording, it seems that neither is the brood density.

Hanashigai means that for most of the day the birds have access to the outside - density of birds also not specified in this wording. The modifier 特定飼育卵 / tokutei shiiku tamago / specially raised eggs - means that from when the chickens were 120 days old, they are guaranteed to have been kept in a condition no more restrictive than 5 birds per square metre. This is likely to be a more expensive egg, but avoids yarded free range eggs, in which hens do have access to a restricted outdoor space but can still be densely populated which can lead to stress, cannibalism and disease. In the EU there has been a similar fixed categorisation of eggs based on their production methods since 2004.

As in many other countries then, simply having free range on the box doesn't mean that the image you have in your mind of happy hens running about in the fresh air is necessarily the case for the company you're buying from. Most companies have websites with information on how the birds are kept, if you want to be sure.

Other handy egg carton terms are:
  • のびのび / nobinobi - relaxed and carefree, often used to emphasize the lifestyle of hens in a conventionally understood 'free range' context, though not legally defined ;).
  • 自然 / shizen - natural. Not a particularly precise term in relation to eggs.
  • オーガニック / oganikku - organic.
  • JAS 認定 JAS nintei, or use of the JAS green leaf symbol - certified organic according to Japanese agricultural standards.
  • JA 全農たまご / JA zennou tamago - eggs produced to Japan agricultural cooperative standards, that monitor hygiene and aiming to improve Japan's food self-sufficiency. Usually caged hens so that safety consistency can be guaranteed at a competitive price.
  • 有機栽培 / yuukisaibai - organic farming methods.
  • 有機卵 / yuukitamago - organic egg.
  • 鶏舎内 / keisshanai - inside the coop.
  • パック日 / pakkuhi - day the eggs were packed into cartons.
  • 採卵日 / sairanbi - day the eggs were harvested.
  • 国産 / kokusan - domestic.
  • 自由に歩き回る / jiyuuni aruki mawaru - walk around freely.
  • 生食用 / namashoku you - for eating raw.
  • 生 / nama - raw.
  • 低温殺菌 / teion sakkin - pasturised.
  • 卵白 / ranpaku - egg white.
  • 卵黄 / ranou - egg yolk.
  • 賞味期限 / shoumi kigen - best before date.
  • 温泉たまご / onsen tamago - soft boiled egg, not raw!

Don't buy onsen tamago for baking :)

I found an interesting contrary point of view in this series of posts that discuss the relative pros and cons of the 3 main ways of producing eggs in Japan: free range, regular caged, and caged in a windowless poultry system.

Keeping in mind that the company uses the windowless method and so wants to extol that system's virtues, they suggest that free range is hazardous because wild animals can have contact with the chickens and introduce disease, that it’s hard to check and be sure that all the birds are healthy, and it's impossible to control what they eat to ensure hygiene and consistency. Of conventionally battery caged hens (in a large coop with walls that get opened in the summer) they say that although it’s easier to keep the droppings away from the eggs, it gets too hot for the birds in the summer and the droppings ferment quickly causing other health risks. They suggest the regulated temperature of the windowless battery solution they use allows for the most consistent and hygienic product - as long as there are no power outages. Animal welfare isn't discussed as being a primary concern for them.

To combat the wild animal contamination risk with some free range situations, one of the farms from the links below has implemented a HACCP-compliant system including a netted area for the chickens to roam in.

The images below are of more conventionally farmed domestic eggs, not free range but with various features such as the feed used, meeting ZA zennou standards of hygiene and quality, and displaying the "face of the farmer" in front of what looks like a windowless poultry system.

Something else you might see on egg packages is 有精卵 / yuuseiran / fertilized eggs, or 無精卵 / museiran / unfertilized eggs. When a Japanese farm describes the benefits of fertilized eggs over unfertilized, they often emphasise the stress-free, close-to-natural social system created by having a cockerel with his own harem of hens, with the idea that this results in a better tasting egg.

Some sites go as far as to say that the 'spark of life' in fertilised eggs make them taste better, but I've also seen it stated (pdf) that unfertilized and fertilised have precisely the same nutritional profile. Perhaps the marker of fertilized egg is most useful at giving an indication of the likely to be more humane type of free range condition in which the chickens are kept. The down side would be that you have to ensure the eggs are kept refrigerated at all times, to avoid them becoming chicks!

Numerous industry sites emphasise the impact on the flavour and quality of the egg that comes from the food and water given to the hens (some go as far as saying that these are the only things that impact the flavour, with animal welfare irrelevant to taste) – so for the best tasting egg, look out for details on the package about the nutritional profile of the feed, and perhaps the fact the farm makes their own blend.

Another interesting character in the world of Japanese poultry is the jidori / 地鶏. In Japan this is a legally defined type of chicken, used mainly for meat, which must have a genealogy of over 50% of Japanese "indigenous" breed of chicken (defined as from at least before the Meiji period, that's an interesting link by the way), be over 80 days old, and be reared with fewer than 10 birds per 1m² from 28 days old. It's an offense to market something as jidori which doesn't meet JAS specifications. There are some places selling eggs from jidori birds.

The main types of jidori chicken are Nagoya cochin / 名古屋コーチン, Satsuma jidori / 薩摩地鶏 and Hinaidori / 比内地鶏, along with the gamecock Okukuji shamo. I was interested to learn that the term jidori is now trademarked... in the US! An enterprising US businessman Dennis Mao, started producing chickens in California in the jidori-style, and his business now supplies many of the famous restaurants who want "jidori" on their menu.

Here are just a few places to try ordering free range eggs in Japan, if you don't find them at your local super.

I'd very much like to pay a visit to one or two of these farms and learn a bit more about how humane egg production works in Japan and what the legal definitions of more of the terms are.
If I get the chance to do a field trip, I'll report back!

1 comment:

  1. Chantelle LAugust 13, 2014

    Very interesting and informative, thank you for writing about free range eggs in Japan, Stacey. There are battery eggs in Australia (my country of origin) as well, but consumers are reasonably informed and can make a choice at the supermarket. I am disappointed that the issue of chicken wefare is so low on the radar in Japan. After living in Japan for the past five months, I have yet to see free range eggs for sale in the major supermarkets.