Why did the chicken cross the road? If you said because it was free range, this may not be entirely true.
In many states in Australia, the term “Free Range Eggs” does not have an official national standard, only recommended limits for farmers to adhere to. For example, a free -range hen may not be confined to its own little cage 24/7, but it may still have to share a barn with 10,000 other chicken neighbours.
According to ABC News, in 2013 cage eggs accounted for only 55 percent of the country’s market share, compared to 77 percent 5 years ago. The idea of happier chickens roaming the countryside has clearly captured the consumer’s imagination, as Australians in general have begun to consider the welfare of their food sources to be as important as the welfare of their pets and other wildlife.
But how much space does a chicken comfortably need? and how does this effect the quality of the eggs, and the ultimate cost to the consumer?
The opinions differ greatly. In Australia the big supermarkets and buyers, such as Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, due to their expansive buying power, have the influence to determine this standard to whatever suits their logistics and profit margin, as long as there is no legislation or national standard requirement to be met for free range eggs.
When this blog was written, the animal advocate group Animals Australia had listed on their website that “1,500 birds per hectare is the recommended maximum” for free range eggs. In 2013 the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Coles Supermarket used 10,000 birds per hectare as their free range egg standard, claiming this was the only way they could support a a free range egg program without hitting consumers with heavily overpriced eggs.
The living conditions for the free range chicken however is just as important as the number of it’s housemates. In the case of “Intensive free- range” farming, free range can simply mean the chickens aren’t caged, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to a life in the sunshine. The space may prevent hens from making natural movements, such as flapping, de-beaking is a common practice to prevent harm to other birds, and as with humans, close proximity can increase the risk of spreading diseases throughout the group.
Buying Free Range eggs is definitely a better alternative to caged eggs, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Read your labels carefully, and vote with your wallet – anything more than 1,500 birds a hectare and de-beaking as a standard should make you think twice.
Check out the links below for further info on Free range Eggs:
How to make sense of egg labels
Supermarket Free Range Egg Practices