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

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.)


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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