For 85% of free range buyers, animal welfare considerations are among the reasons for their choice.
So it’s not surprising that, for our survey respondents, the meaning of ‘free range’ strongly relates to the freedom of birds to move around and access the outdoors. According to our respondents, free range means:
- birds are never confined in cages (69% of respondents)
- birds have more space as a maximum number of birds is allowed outdoor per hectare (66%) and/or,
- birds have easy access to pasture (65%).
Unfortunately, images of contented, clucking chooks flapping their wings, dust bathing, socialising and roaming around open green pastures aren’t always the reality.
Stocking density confusion
The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry is a voluntary national guide to the poultry industry, and designates a maximum outdoor stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare for free range layer hens.
It states that a proportionately higher stocking density for meat hens than for layers may be used, and goes on to say that "any higher bird density is acceptable only where regular rotation of birds onto fresh range areas occurs and close management is undertaken which provides some continuing fodder cover".
Whether or not this final clause relates specifically to meat hens, or to both meat and layer hens, is open to the interpretation of state and territory governments.
For example, NSW told us its interpretation is that it applies to birds in both egg and meat production systems. Queensland, on the other hand, says its understanding is that the clause is only applicable to meat chickens. While Queensland was the only state with a legislated maximum outdoor stocking density for free range which was set at 1500 birds per hectare, in line with the Code of Practice, it increased that limit to 10,000 birds per hectare in 2013.
The maximum number of birds allowed in outdoor spaces can differ enormously under the various free range standards. Examples include:
- 750 birds per hectare - Free Range Farmers Association (Vic)
- 1500 or 2500 birds per hectare (if the outdoor system has a fixed range area or rotational range access respectively) - RSPCA
- 10,000 birds per hectare - the limit adopted by Coles and Woolworths for their own brand of "free range" eggs.
- 20,000 birds per hectare - as proposed by the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd and rejected by the ACCC. This would be a 13-fold increase on the Model Code of Practice's 1500 hens per hectare.
According to AECL, 29% of free-range egg production in Australia stock at densities higher than 20,000 hens per hectare.
Which stocking density is best?
In arguing for an increase to 20,000 birds per hectare, AECL cited research conducted by the Scottish Agricultural College which shows that densities greater than the equivalent of 20,000 birds per hectare “impose some constraint of free expression of behaviour.”
What wasn't highlighted was that this isolated 2006 study looked at behavioural responses to different indoor floor space allowances in small groups of just five or six hens.
The College told CHOICE that this density wouldn’t necessarily be suitable outdoors, “where birds are more likely to spread out when foraging, and where droppings and thus parasite and nitrogen loads etc would have to be taken into consideration.”
AECL also refered to a survey of over 5000 consumers which it commissioned, which asked about acceptance of varying outdoor stocking densities based on visual representations of these densities. It reported community acceptance of a wide range of free range outdoor stocking densities from less than 500 to more than 25,000 hens per hectare.
In our survey, we asked consumers what they’d consider to be a reasonable maximum outdoor stocking density for free range egg laying hens.
- Less than 1% of respondents supported 20,000 birds per hectare
- Stocking densities at the lower end of the scale were more popular (1,500 and 750 birds per hectare were nominated by 16% and 12% of respondents respectively)
- However 65% of respondents said they didn’t know.
For more details see our Free Range Key Findings Report (pdf).
This reinforces our opinion that a maximum stocking density shouldn’t be predominantly based on consumer research, but rather on a broader body of relevant independent, scientific research in conjunction with consumer research, and with consultation with all stakeholder groups.