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
 

01 .Introduction

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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02.Setting standards

 

Free-range eggs are big business. They’re a growing sector of the market and currently represent nearly 20 percent of the eggs sold in supermarkets. But in Australia there’s no legal definition of what the term ‘free range’ actually means. (Other than a very basic definition in Queensland under the state’s Animal Care and Protection Regulation 2002.)

Unless the producer has met clearly defined standards, ‘free range’ means very little.

The European Union (EU) has set enforceable standards, but in Australia we have only voluntary standards set by the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA) and animal welfare organisations, such as the RSPCA and the Humane Society International’s Humane Choice scheme, but you won’t find Humane Choice logos on eggs.

Certified organic eggs are also free range and must meet standards set by accrediting organisations, such as Biological Farmers of Australia (see Logos you can trust). The Australian Egg Corporation’s quality assurance scheme, called Egg Corp Assured, includes free-range egg production, but its standards are less specific and allow more birds per square metre of shed or range area than the other organisations (see Standards compared table, below, for details).

Keeping up appearances

We bought all the brands of free-range eggs we could find in a Coles and a Woolworths store in Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney (for details, see the Egg freshness table). Only one (Family Homestead) was independently certified by FREPAA or any other animal welfare organisation.

One big producer told us they set “unreasonable conditions”.

Most free-range producers told us they were accredited and audited by the Australian Egg Corporation’s Egg Corp Assured scheme. (The Australian Egg Corporation is the national industry body that represents 90 percent of producers.)

Standards compared

Criterion Egg Corp Assured/Model code of practice for the welfare of animals; Domestic poultry, 4th edition Australian Certified Organic Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA) RSPCA European Union (Directive 1999/74/EC)
Basic definition Birds in free-range systems are housed in shed and have access to an outdoor range Birds being produced under natural conditions, allowing for natural behaviour and social interaction and having access to open range or appropriately fenced and managed areas Birds kept or produced without mutilation in natural conditions, having access for their natural behavioural requirements either being run in an open range situation or an appropriately fenced or managed area Eggs considered for RSPCA certification would by definition exclude those produced in intensive cage systems
Ease of access to outdoors All birds when fully feathered must have ready access through openings to the outdoor range during daylight hours. As a guide openings should be a minimum 35 cm high and 40 cm wide with 2 metres per 1000 birds taking into account the climatic conditions. All birds shall have access to pastured "green pick" areas during daylight hours Hens must have unrestricted access to the free-range run during the daylight hours Not specified There must me several popholes giving access to the outdoor area, at least 35 cm high and 40 cm wide and extending along the entire length of the building; in any case a total opening of 2 m must be available per group of 1000 hens
Stocking density - sheds 14 birds per sq metre (30kg/sq metre) Should not exceed 5 adult birds per square metre. The number of birds per shed should not exceed 1500 birds without operator application to ACO Maximum of 7 birds (15kg) per sq metre; no more than 1,000 hens Maximum of 7 birds (15kg) per sq meter The stocking density must not exceed nine laying hens per sq metre usable area
Stocking density - paddock A maximum of 1500 birds per hectare As a guide, maximum outdoor stocking rates should not exceed 1000 birds per hectare Maximum of 750 birds/hectare Maximum of 1500 birds/hectare Not specified
Shed quality Litter and/or slatted flooring, or wire flooring or any combination of these. Provision of adequate perching space is encouraged. - at least one single bird nest per 7 hens Weatherproof housing with sufficient perches to enable normal roosting Waterproof housing with either slatted, mesh or deep litter floors that contain sufficient perches to enable normal roosting for all birds Adequate shelter; complete protection from predators; clean air; adequate and readily available supply of clean potable water and balanced food At least one nest for every 7 hens
Paddock quality Sited and managed to avoid muddy or unsuitable conditions. Birds must have access to shaded areas and shelter from rain, and windbreaks should be provided in exposed areas All birds shall have access to pastured "green pick" areas during daylight hours. Sufficient shade and adequate feed and water shall be maintained in areas where birds are foraging Shall have adequate shade/wind/predator protection and be capable of long-term sustainability with adequate natural ground cover Of an area appropriate to the stocking density and to the nature of the ground, in order to prevent any contamination; equippwith with shelter from inclement weather and predators and, if necessary, apprpriate drinking troughs
Feed quality Adequate feed must be provided in the feeding systems of free-range sheds taking into account the level of nutrients available in the range area In accordance with the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Domestic Poultry, clean suitable feed with quality fresh drinking water shall be available at all times Clean, dry feed comprising only natural products, grains and natural sources of vitamins and minerals must be used. If meat by-products are included in the diet they must be heat treated. Proper nutrition levels to be maintained. Shell or calcium grit must be available at all times
Beak trimming If [other] measures fail to control [feather picking or canibalism] appropriate beak trimming of the birds should be considered in consultation with an expert in animal welfare to prevent further injury or mortality in the flock Practices such as systematic beak trimming … are prohibited All bird mutilation practices are unnecessary at the above stocking densities and are prohibited (Beak trimming, etc.) If beak trimming is required, a once-off beak trimming in the first week of life of the birds with trimming limited to tipping only of the hook of the upper mandible. Outbreaks of canibalism may require a more severe trim which should only be undertaken on veterinary advice. Member States may authorise beak trimming provided it is carried out by qualified staff on chickens that are less than 10 days old and intended for laying
 

Animal welfare experts, such as the RSPCA’s Chief Scientist, Dr Bidda Jones, believe that chooks suffer stress unless they’re able to satisfy their basic behavioural needs. They need:

  • Space to stretch and flap their wings,
  • A secluded nesting place in which to lay their eggs and
  • Facilities that allow them to dust-bathe and forage.

Traditional free-range standards are designed to meet these needs but there’s concern that they’re being compromised by large-scale production systems.

The issues of most concern to traditional free-range producers relate to:

  • overcrowding,
  • access to outdoors and
  • the quality of the range area.

Shed shortfalls

Even traditional free-range chooks spend more time in a shed than they do outdoors. Egg Corp Assured allows 14 birds per square metre in the shed, whereas FREPAA standards restrict the number to only seven and the EU guidelines to no more than nine per square metre. (See Standards compared for details.)

For comparison, cage systems allow a space equivalent to 18 birds per square metre.

Chooks instinctively form small social groups in which there’s a pecking order, but in overcrowded conditions these behaviour patterns break down and birds often attack each other. Packs of bully birds can form and terrorise the others. This problem is compounded because the only genetic strains of birds available from commercial hatcheries have been specially bred for life in cages (and very efficient conversion of feed into eggs). These birds tend to be aggressive and are less suited to free-range conditions.

Producers trim the hens’ beaks to prevent them injuring (or killing) weaker birds. Beak trimming is allowed under the Egg Corp Assured scheme and by the RSPCA but is prohibited by the Australian Certified Organic and FREPAA standards. (See Standards compared for details.)

Range deficiencies

Maintaining pasture cover is important for the health of the birds and for minimising the environmental impact of free-range poultry farming. Egg Corp Assured does not have ground cover specifications and sets a limit of no more than 1500 birds per hectare of range area — twice the maximum number of birds per hectare specified by FREPAA and 1.5 times the number specified by Australian Certified Organic.

Cage concerns

RSPCA image of Chicken in cageThese two certifying organisations also specifically require adequate natural ground cover. When there are too many birds the range area is likely to be bare earth.

More than two-thirds of the eggs sold in Australian supermarkets are laid by hens kept in small wire cages holding up to five birds. Cages have a minimum height of 40 cm (just high enough for the hens to stand up) and each hen has a minimum floor space of 550 square centimetres (about the size of a page of CHOICE). Hens in cages also have their beaks trimmed to prevent them from injuring weaker birds. The cage system is a cheap and efficient way to produce eggs but it is also seen as cruel.

It’s being phased out in the European Union and has already been banned in Switzerland. 

Barn benefits

Barn-laid is an alternative humane system for producing eggs which is endorsed by the RSPCA. The term might make you think of a rustic hen house with a few dozen hens contentedly clucking, but ‘shed-laid’ would be a more accurate description, as barn-laid eggs come from hens housed in large sheds. Limited beak trimming is allowed but the birds have litter in which to dust bathe and adequate space to flap their wings, stretch and socialise.

About 5% of the eggs in shops are barn-laid. Most brands we saw were certified by the RSPCA but some weren’t (Veggs for families, Woolworths Select and Farm Pride).

04.Truth in labelling

 

Apart from there being no legally enforceable certification standards, there have also been issues surrounding the substitution of cage eggs for free-range eggs. One packer and supplier was recently found by the Federal Court to have substituted cage eggs for organic ones.

In some cases, it’s the old story — caveat emptor, buyer beware.

  • The label on Veggs for families has “Organic Grain Fed Hens” in large letters and you could easily mistake them for organic eggs. But these are barn-laid eggs, whereas certified organic eggs must be free-range (see Setting standards).
  • In addition, a subscriber wrote to us about Wattle Ridge, The Environmental Egg. The label enthusiastically declares their environmental credentials — “a completely biodegradable, environmentally sound pack … recycled water … a recycling program second to none that turns the chicken’s waste into valuable compost.” But you could easily miss the word “cage” in text only slightly darker than the background. As our subscriber points out, “It’s another example of where a lack of clear labelling makes it difficult even for the most careful shopper.”

The NSW Food Authority has investigated accuracy of labelling and its report will be published later this year.

Logos you can trust

These organisations certify free-range egg producers. They have clearly defined standards that producers must meet and they have systems in place for regular inspections of farms. Check their respective websites for information on their standards. Free range poultry and egg logo

Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA)

This comes under the umbrella of the Free Range Farmers Association and can be contacted on 03 5628 7603, 07 4696 7501, or 02 4572 3315 www.freerangefarmers.com.au.

 

RSPCA logo

RSPCA

Australia mainly endorses barn-laid eggs but also free-range farms that meet their criteria; 02 6282 8300. See www.rspca.org.au.

 

Australian certified organic logo

Australian Certified Organic

This is the logo of the Biological Farmers of Australia, 07 3350 5716 or www.bfa.com.au. This was the only organic certification we found on eggs, but there are other organic certifying organisations - see CHOICE, August 2007.

 

Meaningless "best before" dates

According to the Australian Egg Corporation’s Code of Practice, the ‘best before’ date marked on egg boxes should be five weeks from the date of laying. But we found plenty of eggs with more than five weeks still to go on the date when we bought them. It’s clear that some producers are using ‘best before’ dates six or more weeks from laying. Yet before the industry was deregulated the date was about three weeks from the date of packing.

CHOICE believes that Australian consumers deserve better and wants to see eggs stamped with the date on which they were packed (as in the US). What would be so hard about that?

05.Choice egg freshness testing

 

Eggs are a perishable commodity. The Australian Egg Corporation’s Code of Practice recommends that eggs should be transported and stored at below 15°C — including in retail outlets. Nonetheless, most supermarkets have them out on aisle shelves, rather than in refrigerators.

We tested more than 650 eggs (all production systems), using an internationally recognised measure of egg freshness and quality called a Haugh unit (see How we tested, below).

There are no prescribed Australian standards but the US standard classifies eggs under 60 Haugh units as ‘weak and watery’ and we used this as our benchmark for freshness.

Of all the eggs we tested, 36 percent had Haugh units below 60 (see table for details). This is an improvement on our last test, in 2004, but may reflect cooler weather rather than improved handling. A similar survey to ours done in the summer months found a failure rate of 77 percent (The Sun-Herald, March 2, 2008).

The Australian Egg Corporation told us that its research shows that eggs deteriorate in one day on the shelves as much as they would in seven days in the fridge. But only one supermarket where we bought eggs (a Woolworths store in Sydney) had them refrigerated.

We found no significant difference overall between the freshness and quality of the eggs from the two big supermarket chains. And on average we found no significant differences between the freshness of barn-laid, cage and free-range eggs.

In the table we’ve ranked the brands by their fail rate. Seven achieved the top score of zero failures:

  • Boost Vegetarian Cage (Brisbane)
  • Essential Foods Free-Range (Melbourne)
  • Family Homestead Free-Range (Melbourne)
  • Field Fresh Free-Range (Sydney)
  • Golden Eggs Barn-Laid (Perth)
  • Nature's Best Free-Range (Sydney)
  • Sunny Queen Farms Barn-Laid (Brisbane)
  • Only one brand, Farm Pride Barn-Laid, failed 100 percent.

How we tested

We bought free-range, barn and cage eggs of each brand that we found in a Coles and Woolworths supermarket in Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. Where possible, we chose 700g boxes and looked for the longest time before the best-before date.

Our tester randomly selected five eggs from each box and cracked them open, one at a time, onto a flat glass surface and, using a micrometer, measured the height of the white. A Haugh unit is an internationally recognised measure of egg freshness and is based on a mathematical formula that combines the weight of the egg and the thickness of the white.

06.Egg freshness results table

 

We tested more than 650 eggs across all production systems, using an internationally recognised measure of egg freshness and quality, to see which ones were the freshest.

Full results for all brands are shown in the table below.

 

Choice's egg freshness test

Brand (in rank order of freshness) Fail rate (%) Haugh units range Number of boxes tested City where bought Price per dozen ($)
Free-range
Essential Foods 0 71-92 1 M 5:37
Family Homestead (A) 0 70–89 1
M
7.45
Field Fresh 0 62–90 1
S
5.27
Nature’s Best 0 66–85 1
S
5.52
Golden Eggs 20 58–76 2
P
6.2
Pace Farm Organic 20 47–78 1
B
8.73
Woolworths Select 32 30–88 5
B, M, P, S
4.69
Sunny Queen Farms Organic 35 48–76 4
B, M, S
8.33
Farm Pride 40 45–80 2
B, S
5.61
Manning Valley 40 46–69 1
S
5.55
Pace Farm Body Egg 40 40–94 3
B, S
5.7
Sunny Queen Farms 40 34–83 4
B, P
6.23
You’ll Love Coles 50 38–84 2
B, S
5.29
Ecoeggs 53 38–73 3
B, S
6.35
Pace Farm 58 45-78 4
B, S
6.09
Jumbo Eggs 60 51-74 1
S
5.25
Margaret River 60 47-70 1
P
7.29
Barn-laid
Golden Eggs (B) 0 62-79 2
P
6.99
Sunny Queen Farms (B) 0 70-85 1
B
6.34
Veggs for Families 10 54-79 2
M, S
5.65
Woolworths Select 40 44-82 4
B, P, S
5.35
Pace Farm (B) 47 42-76 3
M, S
3.94
You’ll Love Coles (B) 47 12-84 3
B, M, S
5.42
Farm Pride 100 34-47 3
B, M, S
4.74
Cage
Boost Vegetarian 0 74-93 1
B
4.25
Golden Eggs 5 59-92 4
P
4.69
Sunny Queen Farms 14 41-84 9
B, M, P
4.39
Homebrand 20 36-96 4
B, M, P, S
2.82
Woolworths Select 25 49-81 4
B, M, P, S
4.55
Coles Smart Buy 32 46-87 5
B, M, P, S
2.74
Wattle Ridge 40 46-94 6
B, M, S
4.93
You’ll Love Coles 45 34-80 4
B, M, P, S
2.95
Farm Pride 50 51-88 2
M
3.89
Pace Farm 60 17-79 5 B,M,S, 4.60
 

Table notes

(A) Certified by FREPAA.
(B) Certified by the RSPCA.
Fail rate The percentage of all tested eggs of that brand and production method with Haugh unit values below 60.
Haugh units range The overall range of Haugh values for all the tested eggs of that brand and production method.
City B is Brisbane, M Melbourne, P Perth and S Sydney.
Price per dozen Prices varied with store and location. This is the average of the prices we paid.