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The truth about free range eggs is tough to crack

Queensland recently changed its regulation of free range eggs, lifting the number of hens allowed per hectare from 1,500 to 10,000. This is more than a six-fold increase. Choice and animal welfare and…

We love our eggs, but what about our chickens? Flickr/Neil

Queensland recently changed its regulation of free range eggs, lifting the number of hens allowed per hectare from 1,500 to 10,000. This is more than a six-fold increase.

Choice and animal welfare and free range farming advocates are in an uproar about the changes. Queensland “free range” no longer means free range at all, they say.

The Queensland Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries says that the new figure is necessary, so that the Queensland egg industry won’t be disadvantaged compared with other states.

In fact no other states have a legislated definition for free range, or minimum stocking density. The department says industry practice is to stock free range egg facilities well in excess of 1,500 birds per hectare.

So, how are we to know that our free range eggs are really free range?

Standards galore

The Primary Industries departments of all Australian state and federal governments work together to set animal welfare guidelines for egg production in the Model Code of Practice for Poultry. The latest version was agreed in 2002 and is now under review. Currently it states that free range can mean up to 1,500 birds per hectare standard, but this could change.

The industry services body that represents producers, the Australian Egg Corporation, admitted last year that some free range egg production facilities stock up to 30 or 40,000 hens per hectare.

The Egg Corp has proposed an industry standard for free range of up to 20,000 birds per hectare. Their proposed standard was assessed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commissioner as likely to mislead and deceive consumers.

In January 2013 supermarket giant Coles announced that it would only stock cage free eggs in its own brand range. For Coles, “free range” would mean a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare outdoors.

The 10,000 figure was not based on any particular evidence or science. Rather it is based on a combination or balancing of what animal welfare requires, what industry say they can accomplish, and what Coles believes consumers feel they can afford based on extensive consumer research.

The new Queensland regulation is still better than other states. It set a limit on outdoor stocking density lower than the 20,000 per hectare proposed by the Egg Corp, and the currently unlimited industry practice.

It also states that production facilities can only go above 1500 up to the 10,000 if hens are moved around and the ground has 60% vegetation cover.

So, what should Australia do?

The big problem with the new Queensland regulation is that it seems to accept that supermarkets in consultation with industry can ultimately decide what animal welfare practises are acceptable. In the absence of government regulation, supermarkets decide what free range means and what choices are available to consumers.

In fact consumers who buy “free range” in supermarkets are actually buying something that would be more accurately described as “barn” or, in more Australian vernacular, “shed” laid. These hens live and eat in large crowded industrial sheds with some access to an outside ranging area that is often bare and uninteresting.

By contrast many consumers, animal welfare advocates and food activists probably think free range means eggs from hens that largely range outside in paddocks, with ground foliage and tree cover and access to an indoor area to nest and perch.

Rather than letting supermarkets and industry dictate what “free range” means in the absence of government regulation, all Australian states and territories should mandate compliance with at least the minimal animal welfare conditions in the Model Code of Practice.

They should also legislate definitions of cage, barn or shed, and free range that make it clear that what often currently counts as free range in the supermarkets is actually barn or shed with outside access, not a truly alternative free range production system.

Consumers need to recognise that the only true free range eggs currently available are premium products that cost more than supermarket brand free range eggs.

An Australian state that really wanted to help its egg industry might do more to help consumers get direct access to farmers outside of the supermarket system.

The South Australian government’s recent proposal to introduce and support its own voluntary “South Australian Free Range” with more stringent standards is a step in this direction. What a pity Queensland chose to loosen its standards rather than market its difference.

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25 Comments sorted by

  1. Barry Calderbank

    logged in via Facebook

    Christine, a bit of nit picking.

    Firstly, your reference to "bare ground" in enterprises that describe themselves as "free range". Unless birds are kept at extremely low stocking rates, bare ground is actually better in terms of their health. A "free range" with loads of grass and loads of other birds is a recipe for a range of serious poultry diseases.

    Secondly, there seems to be an underlying assumption that "free range", in particular real free range as distinct from barn or shed systems…

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    1. Christine Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Barry Calderbank

      I could't agree more. The whole system - starting with the way the chickens have been bred means that all the assumptions consumers have about "free range" don't fit at all with large scale commercial egg production.

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    2. Georg Antony

      analyst

      In reply to Barry Calderbank

      Unfortunately, animal welfare is merely a smokescreen in the supermarket wars. Coles' Euro-import managers are trying to grab market share by importing Euro consumer superstition to then pander to it. Damage caused to Australian producers is seen as purely collateral.

      "Hormone-free" beef was the opening salvo: originally the EU's excuse to exclude US beef imports that the EU could not give a scientific figleaf of legitimacy, despite the tens of millions of euros spent on looking for one. Still…

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  2. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    I grew up on a poultry farm where we raised hens in a large shed with outside yard. Every so often you would find a living hen with her guts hanging out where other hens had been pecking her - This is what "pecking order" is all about. A hen near the bottom of the pecking order might actually feel safer in a small cage with a limited number of other hens. Ditto a hen in a protected cage instead of out in the open with hawks flying around.
    I don't claim to know what a hen would prefer but I wonder what research is available on the subject

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    1. Christine Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Davidson

      Yes - there is some research about breeds of chickens (see above) that suit free ranging more as opposed to being in a cage. Current breeds have certain characteristics that make the productive but means they might also need to be kept in a cage. More importantly there is a lot of research that hens like to keep in their pecking order in small groups - and they need the space and management to do that safely. Feather pecking and cannibalism are much more likely where this gets mucked up.

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    2. TheVegan OfAus

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Davidson

      What a hen would prefer is to not be subject to human determinism. Just like any other (nonhuman) animal.

      She would also prefer not to be sent to the abattoir when she is 2 years old because she is "spent." Again, just like any other animal.

      What people prefer to think about what hen's might prefer is an altogether different matter.

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  3. Ketan Joshi

    Research and Communications Officer at Infigen Energy

    I wonder if there would be worth in labeling products with a 'Chickens/Hectare' score, through which consumers could purchase products proportional to how much space the animals had been given during their lifespan?

    Is that just wishful thinking, or a real possibility?

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    1. Christine Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ketan Joshi

      One of the good things about what Coles is doing is that they are indeed making this transparent on their own brand packages - even though it is 10 000 per hectare. A lot of the small organic and pastured or "true" free range farms state their number of hens per hectare too. It would be great if all brands followed suit. But then what about information about how long the hens actually spend on the range, management of the range, rotation of hens across the pasture, what they primarily eat and perhaps most importantly beak trimming (which is often used when the birds are too crowded and stressed).

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    2. Sharon Lee

      FlavourCrusader

      In reply to Christine Parker

      I've made a list of Australian <a href="http://flavourcrusader.com/blog/2011/09/free-range-eggs-australia/">pastured free range egg farms</a>; the farmers are incredibly transparent about their methods. And of course, you can ask them questions at farmers' markets; many are also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and are more than happy to chat.

      In reply to Barry, many of these farmers use Maremma dogs to protect the chooks from predators.

      p.s: Pastured eggs are absolutely delicious!

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    3. Barry Calderbank

      Farmer

      In reply to Ketan Joshi

      Hi Ketan.

      I suspect people who care about what they eat will want to know a lot of stuff, not just the stocking density. Also something about other practices on the farm, including what chemicals are used (and while organic farmers don't use synthetic chemicals, manures and composts are still chemicals and, if poorly applied, can cause a range of problems for the consumer, environment etc).

      I guess it comes down to how big you want the label to be and how much time you have to read it…

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  4. Nial Wheate

    Senior Lecturer in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at University of Sydney

    The biggest problem isn't how you define free range eggs; although we do need reasonable standards in this area. The biggest problem is that mums and dads only account for half the eggs that are consumed. The other half of eggs that are produced are done so for pharmaceutical companies to produce a variety of medicines, most specifically vaccines. Pharmaceutical companies need to keep costs down and so will buy the cheapest eggs (i.e. non-free range). So if we really care about animal welfare we need to address this side of the market just as much as the standards that define free range.

    For the record, I only buy free range eggs for my house.

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    1. Christine Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Nial Wheate

      Hi Nial, That is really interesting. I knew that about half the eggs produced in Australia go into processed foods and hospitality and that we don't seem to care as much about cage free in those contexts as we do in relation to carton eggs - but I didn't know about pharmaceutical use. I'd be interested in knowing more about that. It seems to me that it is these processing uses of eggs that lie behind the Australian government's failure to ban battery cages as they should have already done. thanks for your comment. Christine

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  5. Malcolm Caulfield

    Principal Lawyer

    I agree completely that it is not appropriate for retailers, and even animal welfare groups, to set free range standards. It really is a matter of what the science says. But in that regard it is perhaps also not right to assume that the standards in the "poultry code" are the ones to adopt, or put the other way round, that higher stocking densities are necessarily bad for animal welfare. The stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare in that code is no more based on science than the industry-advocated…

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    1. Christine Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Malcolm Caulfield

      Couldn't agree more, Malcolm! Well put! One just hopes that there might be some slightly higher possibility of a reasonable democratic process for deciding these things through government regulation as opposed to private standard setting. But whichever forum decides these matters, it is important that consumers and animal welfare advocates with alternative points of view make their voices heard!

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  6. ian brown
    ian brown is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    Until the science is "in" (if ever), I will continue to select eggs from lower stocked farms. Whilst it is presumably in the economic interest of producers to increase from 1500 to 10,000 per ha,it may well not be in the interests of the birds themselves, not to mention the end consumers. Although WA based, I have up until now, and somewhat reluctantly, bought Queensland eggs rather than local produce because of the 1500 per ha limit - none of the local free range producers make this claim. One hopes that some Queensland operators will continue to limit stocking rates - if not, then local organic producers will get my business.

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    1. Christine Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to ian brown

      Hi Ian, Look for alternative accreditations such as organic or humane choice accreditations - or just ask the famed. Yes - you are right that organic - if it really is organic - will generally have some decent animal welfare measures - although it might still be quite a large scale and intense farm. Christine

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  7. Richard Hockey

    logged in via Facebook

    " Model Code of Practice for Poultry. The latest version was agreed in 2002 and is now under review. "
    Does anyone know whats happening about this review? There is next to nothing on the DAFF website about it.
    R

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  8. Mike Stasse

    retired energy consultant

    Well......... if you buy supermarket food, serves you right.

    We keep chickens and ducks. Eight in total. Soon to be more as a clutch of 18 eggs should hatch in a month..... YUM..! They have about 1/2 acre to roam around in our orchard where they do fruit fly duty, fertilise the trees, keep snails and slugs at bay, and give us TRUE free range eggs with 20 times the Omega 3 fatty acids of industrial eggs.......

    Grass is an important part of a chook's diet. Industrial chooks are overfed, overweight and I wouldn't touch them or their eggs with a forty foot pole.

    Industrial agriculture may keep you in the food you take for granted...... but it really sucks.
    http://damnthematrix.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/ducks-web.jpg?w=777

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    1. Stephanus Cecil Barnard

      Town planner and freelance writer at Kalahariozzie

      In reply to Mike Stasse

      Reading the comments made me wonder how the average punter on the street feel about this animal welfare business? If the general public reaction on the live cattle trade to Indonesia (by example) compare to the general public's reaction on the new rules for 'unlawful maritime arrivals' (to use Grandpa Spin Bob Carr's term), you are better of being a chook than a scared Afghanistani. Good on the animal welfare pressure groups, shame on the human rights groups.

      With that of my chest, the best…

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    2. Christine Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephanus Cecil Barnard

      Couldn't agree more with everything you write Stephanus. But also let us bear in mind that in some idyllic past (and perhaps future) many many people in the world lived in the sort of spaces where chickens could run around our homes and eat our scraps and so on and contribute to both our food and waste management and pleasure in life! It wasn't actually that long ago - only 50 or 60 years...

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  9. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    Model Codes of Practice are presumably determined after careful consideration and, if followed would result in, at 1500 hens per hectare, about 6-7 sq.metres of space per hen. This seems very acceptable especially when compared to 30,000 hens /hectare which gives each hen about 75cms x 40cms of space which is about twice the floor area of a single- hen cage[ie] totally unacceptable. I understand that hens, which spend the day on open paddocks are housed at night in sheds, and this reduces the loss…

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