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
 

03.Animal welfare

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).

 

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