Counting Your Chickens: Free Range Egg Labelling in Australia

A rescued battery hen
Picture: Animals Australia
In an episode of the spoof program Portlandia, a hipster couple scan the menu at a groovy locavore restaurant. They ask the friendly waitress about the provenance of the organic chicken. She gives them the name of the chicken – Colin – provides his papers and a photo, and confirms that he was a heritage breed, had four acres to run around in, was ‘woodland-raised’ on a local farm, lived a happy, contented life, and was fed a diet of hazelnut, soy and sheep’s milk.

But this isn’t enough for them. They leave the restaurant to investigate the farm for themselves, asking the waitress to hold their seats.

While this is comedy, the fact is when it comes to anything to do with animal rights and food production, you can’t take anything at face value. Eggs are no exception. If you’ve moved beyond cage eggs and want to find out about the alternatives, it’s not as straightforward as you’d expect.

An end to cage eggs?
There are four broad categories of egg-laying systems: cage eggs, barn laid, free range and organic. Battery cages were banned in the EU from 1 January this year, because of the unacceptable level of cruelty they impose. They are also illegal in seven US states.

Unfortunately, cage eggs are still legal in Australia, and the situation for hens confined this way is dire. The Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL), the representative body for the industry, will never change its pro-cage stance voluntarily; only consumer pressure will force our MPs to act. Animals Australia is currently running a campaign to end battery cages in Australia, and you can help.

In fact there's already a great deal of awareness of hen welfare in the community if retail figures are anything to go by. Free range eggs represented 32.9% of the retail market in 2011; add certified organic and barn laid to that figure and it’s fair enough to conclude that at least half the egg-buying public have already thought about how their eggs are produced. If we consumers pushed hard enough, a ban on cages could become a reality here.

Alternatives to the cage
Animals Australia has produced an excellent summary of the various categories of egg-laying systems and what they actually mean for animal welfare. It’s not simple: within the three more humane categories, different labelling systems exist with their own standards. Unfortunately it’s also positively labyrinthine in the USA. Luckily for UK consumers, things appear to be more straightforward there, as this guide suggests.

Below I’ve set out some of the discoveries I’ve made in my attempts to work out what’s going on with Australian labelling. The gist of this is: you can buy genuine free range eggs from the supermarket, but you'll have more choice if you buy them from other outlets.

Bog standard supermarket 'free range'
  • The Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) has its own free range certification based on these standards. This certification is controversial among animal welfare groups and some free range egg producers because debeaking is permitted; it’s claimed that many of the chickens don’t ever see the entry point from their barn to the paddock and stay inside their whole lives; and stocking densities may be excessive (see next point).
  • The AECL is lobbying the government to allow ‘free range’ to include 20,000 birds per hectare. At the moment the recommended maximum is 1500 but this is only a legal maximum in Queensland. The industry argues that its free range producers are exceeding this number anyway, and that it is simply trying to impose a maximum for accreditation purposes. It uses this video to justify its stance. According to Animals Australia, the AECL also proposes that free range hens be allowed to be locked inside sheds for the first 25 weeks of their lives – even though they begin laying eggs at just 18 weeks old and currently go outside from about 5–6 weeks of age.
  • The labelling of AECL-accredited free range eggs doesn't mention the AECL directly; it’ll probably say something like ‘certified free range’. You might ask if there’s much difference between the different companies within the AECL’s free range certification. You’ll need to investigate that yourself. The fact is, the supermarket free range egg companies have become very clever at designing packaging that replicates small indie companies with high standards; two labels that do this well are Eco Eggs and Loddon Valley.
  • The labelling of supermarket free range eggs can be misleading in another way. Sometimes the provenance of the company and its level of independence is misrepresented. I was cheerfully buying McLean’s Run eggs from the supermarket, which are ‘certified free range’ with a maximum of 1500 hens per hectare. When I rang the information number provided by the company, the person who answered the phone identified it as Sunny Queen farms! So who actually owns this supposedly independent company?
RSPCA standards
  • The RSPCA, which is currently running its own campaign against cage eggs, has introduced its own quality assurance labelling. This has higher standards than the AECL standards and aims to ensure hens can express their natural behaviours. Frankly, it makes things more confusing for consumers because it includes barn-laid eggs. The RSPCA would probably say that it was encouraging producers of barn eggs to keep to minimum standards of hen wellbeing. But the result is a justification of barn-laid eggs, and hens kept in these conditions don’t get out into the open air for most of their lives.
Higher standard free range
  • Certified organic is a form of free range that has the strictest and highest standards of all. This isn't always made clear by the labelling - when you buy certified organic eggs, they will always be free range, but with higher standards than the other categories.
  • Free range eggs accredited by the RSPCA have higher standards than AECL accredited free range, but there are still some issues. The RSPCA standards allow beak trimming as long as it’s carried out using infrared equipment (the more brutal method of hot blade trimming is still reportedly used for standard AECL accreditation, although the AECL denies this). And RSPCA accredited free range eggs aren’t readily available in supermarkets, though the barn-laid RSPCA-accredited eggs are. This means that because many people trust the RSPCA and buy their eggs from supermarkets, they’ll end up buying barn laid. Here’s the list of RSPCA accredited companies and products.
  • More seriously, the RSPCA publicity actually encourages consumers to choose RSPCA-accredited eggs rather than, say, certified organic.
  •  Other independent forms of free range accreditation have stricter guidelines than the AECL or the RSPCA, including in the area of beak trimming. For example, the Free Range Farmers Association only allows 750 birds per hectare and does not allow beak trimming. This body argues that beak trimming is necessary only when there are too many hens per hectare – if true, this raises questions about the wisdom of the AECL increasing the allowed density for free range accreditation. (Possibly the main difference between this high standard free range and certified organic would be the type of feed the hens get and/or the use of pesticides on the farm.)
  • My experience is that in Melbourne at least, of the eggs available at Coles or Woolworths, most of the certified or accredited free range eggs will be so under the AECL guidelines and not the more rigorous forms of free range accreditation mentioned above. Important exceptions to this are Family Homestead eggs, Sunny Queen certified organic eggs and Pace Farm certified organic eggs. These  are available in at least some Coles supermarkets in Victoria and the two organic categories are available at some Woolworths stores. More on these below.
  • Family Homestead eggs, available at Coles, are possibly your best choice at the supermarket. They are produced under higher accreditation standards than AECL or RSPCA eggs and are accredited with the Free Range Farmers Association Victoria and Humane Choice True Free Range. According to the website, they do not debeak; they use dogs to guard the hens; there are only 750 hens per hectare; best of all they encourage visitors to check out their farm. Sunny Queen organic eggs and Pace Farm organic eggs would seem to be produced under the most rigorous accreditation standards because they're certified organic, but keep in mind they are large and ruthless players that produce eggs for all the niche markets, including cage eggs.
  • Apart from the ones I've mentioned, eggs with more rigourous free range accreditation standards or those certified organic tend to be available at health food stores, organic grocery stores, farmers markets and food markets, and IGA supermarkets in some states. (But don’t assume that eggs sold at markets and labelled free range are automatically superior – check the label for the correct logo.)
  • Whichever label you choose, remember that male chicks are killed at birth, sometimes very cruelly, and laying hens are sent to slaughter from 18 months of age.
What you can do
  • Identify the accreditation you feel comfortable with. Some people start off with barn laid and work their way up!
  • Buy your eggs from health food or organic stores or markets.
  • Pressure your local supermarket to stock free range eggs from more rigourous accreditations than the AECL one, or a greater range of non-AECL free range and organic eggs.
  • Ask Coles and Woolies to stop stocking cage eggs
  • Demand that they refuse to stock AECL free range eggs if the revised standards go ahead.
  • Write to your local MP and the federal Minister for Agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon, to demand the banning of battery cages in Australia.
  • Start your own online campaign for banning cage eggs.
  • Support the Animals Australia campaign, and tell your friends and family about the suffering of hens in battery cages.
Until next time!

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like How to Carry Out Your Green and Ethical New Year's Resolutions.


Anonymous said...

Somewhat out of date - pre Coalition govt. and some of the links no longer work. Still very helpful and informative blog!

freeranger said...

Well done for spelling out the problems with labelling in Australia. Hopefulloy thjings will become a litle clearr if Ministers for Consumer Affairs endorse a definition for the term 'free range' at their next meeting in April.
Unfortunateolyt the reality is that there is little point in loo9kingt for accreditation logos on cartons because they are meaningless. Often the standards of the various programs do not meet consumer expectations and there have been countless examples where standards have not been enforced.
The reality is that consumers will not find free range eggs in a major supermarket. There are plenty of cartons labelled as free range but th eggs are nearly always from intensive farms. At leqast one accreditation body in Victoria actually allowed one of its members to purchase most of the eggs it packaged from an unaccredited source interstate. Other members were allowed to include colouring additives in the feed they gave their hens even though that breached the association's standards. Currently accreditation in the egg industry is a joke. Ignore loigos and dodgy claims