Free range eggs not all they're cracked up to be

How free are the hens that lay free-range eggs? Have big producers redefined free range to suit themselves?
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  • Updated:20 Jun 2008


Eggs with smiley faces

Do you pay extra for free-range eggs hoping the chooks that laid them have a better life? Or maybe there’s a chance that they’ll taste better or be more nutritious than cage eggs? 

The cartons may have pictures of happy hens roaming in lush green paddocks but the reality of free-range eggs can be very different. The industry is dominated by three big producers (Novo, Pace Farm, Manning Valley) who account for well over half the free-range eggs sold in Australia.

Their "free-range" eggs are produced on a truly industrial scale and some come from flocks of up to 120,000 birds.

These hens may be housed in huge sheds, they may never find the door to go outside and their eggs come off conveyor belts.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2008 but is still a useful guide today.

CHOICE verdict

If you’re buying free-range eggs because you believe in animal welfare, the brands in the big supermarkets may not be meeting your expectations.

Barn-laid eggs (if they’re certified by the RSPCA) meet humane standards or you could buy certified organic eggs (check the labels) or go to smaller local shops or markets to find eggs with independent free-range certification.

There’s an urgent need for a clear national definition of ‘free range’ and tighter regulation.

Did you know?

  • Antibiotics and hormones Claims that eggs are free from antibiotics and hormones mean very little. Hormones haven’t been used in chicken (or egg) production since the 1960s. Cage birds are routinely given antibiotics for disease prevention but tests have shown that the antibiotics don’t get into the eggs.
  • Cholesterol Eggs contain cholesterol in the yolk, but are eligible for the Heart Foundation tick. Eggs are highly nutritious; definitely part of a healthy diet.
  • Cracked or broken eggs are risky Most eggs contain no bacteria when they’re laid but the shells are quickly contaminated with bacteria from nests and litter. When the shells are cracked or broken, the bacteria (mainly salmonella) spread to the egg inside. So always throw out any cracked or broken eggs.
  • Omega-3 Some eggs are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids by feeding the hens a special diet. There’s evidence that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (which you get mainly from fish) are good for your heart and may improve brain development. A serving (two eggs) of Pace Farm Body Eggs contains about 200 mg of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. That’s less than half the amount you’d get from a serving of Atlantic salmon (about 550 mg), but is a useful contribution to the recommended dietary intake of 610 mg/day for men and 430 mg/day for women. Some eggs are enriched only in shorter-chain omega-3s (ALA), which are not as beneficial as long-chain omega-3s.


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