French chicken bottoms are apparently really clever things. In common with many other countries, French eggs come stamped with all kinds of data.
The egg box tells you that it contains 6 eggs from chooks raised in the open air. It also tells you the name and address of the producer and gives a best before date. These eggs come from our local egg farm. We bought them in the supermarket, but we could just as easily have called in to the farm and bought them direct.
The eggs themselves are stamped with a '1' which tells you that they are certified as free range, 'FR' which tells you they were produced in France, then a code which I can't read properly, but I believe identifies the producer. Just for good measure, they are stamped with the words 'PLEIN AIR' ('open air', meaning the hens are 'free range', not 'battery').
European law means that the hens on this farm must each have a minimum of 4m² of grass (not just bare earth) outdoors and indoors be no more than 9 hens per square metre of useable space (with 4 stage levels allowed). There is no limit on the size of chook sheds or the total number of birds on the farm. There are no particular regulations regarding the constituents of the feed, the number of egg collections per day, or the age of the egg when packed.
The next certification above this is Label Rouge (élevées en plein air). Label Rouge is a uniquely French food quality assurance system, originally started by poultry farmers alarmed by the effect on quality that modern 'industrial' farming methods were having in the 1960s, and now administered by the Department of Agriculture, which aims to codify traditional best practice and geographical provenance, with the purpose of ensuring high quality produce and high levels of animal welfare. Hens enjoying the Label Rouge lifestyle would have a minimum of 5m² each of grass and the whilst the indoor stocking rate is still 9 hens per square metre, it is calculated using the ground area only and farms are limited to two chicken houses containing no more than 6000 birds per building. With Label Rouge certification, the feed is strictly regulated, as is the egg collection and the maximum age of the egg when packed.
Label Rouge farms are inspected, and the eggs tested for food safety and tastiness, and naturally, this comes at a price. Many farms comply with the Label Rouge rules, but feel the price of certification is too high for the premium they can put on their product, so they rely on the fact that they sell locally and are personally known by their customers, who trust them and their product, and benefit by not having the price of certification passed on to them.
The certification level below 'oeufs de poules élevées en plein air' is 'oeufs de poules élevées au sol', which translates as 'eggs from hens raised on the ground'. It means the hens are uncaged, but spend all their lives indoors in a big, often multi-level barn. In other respects the regulations are the same as for 'free range' hens.
* Neuf oeufs neufs à neuf heures (I hope I've got that right!) – see Living the Life in Saint-Aignan for a discussion of the grammar and phonetics of this phrase, and a discussion of buying eggs in France.