UPDATE: So here’s an interesting turn of events. The Australian Egg Corporation (the peak industry body for laying hens) has revised its own voluntary guidelines to define ‘free range’ as hens kept up to 20,000 per hectare. Whoa. That’s 13 times higher than its previous voluntary code which recommended 1500 birds per hectare.
Not surprisingly, ethical farmer’s groups are outraged and said the practice is ‘dangerously misleading’ because consumers could buy free range in supermarket and be none the wiser.
Genuine free range farms have around 750 birds per hectare.
Managing director of the AEC James Kellaway said prices would rise if suppliers were expected to keep fewer birds per hectare and that this would lead to Australians importing shell eggs from countries with lower animal welfare standards.
Here’s what we originally wrote:
Can you imagine that a chicken cage is roughly the size of one A4 piece of paper? No? Well imagine up to five chickens living on that one piece of A4 paper and you’ll be close to the reality for cage egg producing chickens in Australia. Nicky Champ has compiled a cheat sheet with everything you need to know about the eggs you buy and the truth about labelling.
There are so many brands of eggs on the supermarket shelves, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by choice when it comes to buying eggs. Free range, organic and barn-laid eggs are commonly mistaken for meaning close to the same thing, but in reality they are very different.
Be prepared for this next fact to make you feel ill, the average cage in which up to five hens are kept in, is roughly the same size as an A4 piece of paper and is only 40cm high. That is only just enough room for the hens to stand up. As they can’t perch, nest or walk, the hens develop weak and brittle bones, by the time they are slaughtered many cannot even stand. Their beaks are also trimmed so that the weaker hens are not harmed (or killed). Sadly, cage eggs still account for more than two-thirds of the eggs sold at Australian supermarkets.
Sorry to dispel the myth you might have had (like me) of barn-laid eggs being produced in lovely thatched-roof barns, where hens freely roam around clucking and peacefully laying eggs on bales of hay. They don’t. Barn-laid means the hens produce eggs in a large shed – not unlike a factory, with no access to daylight. However, this method is endorsed by the RSPCA as it is much more humane than the conditions for caged hens.
Unfortunately in Australia there is no legislation that ensures the term free-range means exactly what it should. We have the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia, which sets voluntary guidelines for farmers and the RSPCA which looks out for animal welfare, but currently the term is used more as a marketing spin rather than a truthful representation of the hen’s lives.
According to the farm accreditation system by Humane Choice, true free-range eggs means the hens have access to the outdoors in daylight hours, access to pasture and a low stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare.
This definition by Humane Choice is also one that The Greens party agrees with and is currently seeking to introduce a bill to standardize the term ‘free range’ to put an end to consumer confusion.
These are produced by giving hens feed that contains a higher proportion of omega-3 and vitamin E, often from the inclusion of flax seeds, soya bean and canola. This contributes to the presence of omega-3 fatty acids in the egg yolk.
Vegetarian eggs are produced from hens that are fed a diet that does not contain any ingredient sourced from either meat or fish. Typically the feed consists of ingredients such as wheat, alfalfa, sunflower seeds and corn. Vegetarian eggs can only be sourced from barn or cage systems, not free-range. One thing to note when buying these types of eggs is that typically all chicken feed is vegetarian.
For an egg to be classified as ‘organic’, it must first be produced from free range hens. The feed must also be 95% certified organic grains, free from synthetic additives and Genetically Modified ingredients.
Why are cage eggs still for sale?
There is an international push to outlaw the production of cage eggs. In Australia, Coles supermarkets are disassociating their home brand with cage eggs and have dropped the price of free-range eggs in their stores, so that customers are encouraged to buy free-range. However, supermarkets will only act when the consumer demand for cage eggs is virtually non-existent.
The next time you are inhaling a breakfast of eggs benedict, it’s worthwhile to ask your local cafe if the eggs they are serving up are free range. It is not something I considered until a friend had enquired at her local cafe and was told they use free-range eggs and until she used the bathroom and saw many cartons of cage eggs in the kitchen, didn’t think to question them. The cafe said that cage eggs were only used in baking, not in the breakfast, needless to say she stopped going to that cafe.
So what brands are the best?
Consumer watchdogs, Choice certifies that eggs containing one of these three logos FREPAA, RSPCA, and AUSTRALIAN CERTIFIED ORGANIC will ensure good quality eggs that are free-range or produced using cruelty-free and ethical means. Choice also warn consumers to be buyer beware – they named and shamed the Veggs for families brand which states ‘Organic Grain Fed Hens’ in large font across their egg cartons, which you would easily mistake for organic eggs – they are actually barn-laid.
The RSPCA mainly endorses barn-laid eggs but also free-range farms that meet their criteria; www.rspca.org.au.
Australian Certified Organic This is the logo of the Biological Farmers of Australia. www.bfa.com.au.
Sources: Choice, ABC news, Aus Food News.
WARNING: THIS VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING FOOTAGE FROM AN AUSTRALIAN CHICKEN SUPPLIER.
Jamie Oliver’s Truth about Chickens video. WARNING: This also contains disturbing footage.