What IS 'free range'?
There are a number of certification bodies, each with their own standards of what 'free range' is. They include industry bodies such as:
Animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA and Humane Society International also have their own certification schemes. Most organic certification standards also look at free-range eggs.
But these schemes are all voluntary and the detail and requirements vary. This means that consumers may not be getting what they expect. In particular, the maximum outdoor stocking densities allowed under each standard are diverse and the issue is controversial – see animal welfare below for details.
There have been numerous instances of misuse of the "free range" label in recent history:
- 2009: Analysis of Egg Corporation data by NSW Greens MP John Kaye indicated that as many as one in six eggs sold as "free range" were laid by caged or barn hens.
- 2011: The Federal Court penalised a West Australian wholesaler for falsely labelling cage eggs as "free range".
- 2012: The Federal Court penalised a South Australian wholesaler for falsely labelling cage eggs as "free range".
- 2013: The ACCC launched proceedings against two "free range" egg companies claiming the conditions were not free range.
- 2014: The ACCC charged Pirovic Enterprise Pty Ltd $300,000 for making misleading representations in its labelling and promotion of eggs as 'free range'.
- 2016: The ACCC found Snowdale Holdings Pty Ltd made false or misleading representations that its eggs were 'free range'.
What consumers think about free-range eggs
In 2014, we conducted a national survey to understand what people think about free-range eggs. The survey was completed by 1,696 people across Australia and found that.
- 65% of Australians bought free-range eggs in the past 12 months.
- Australians buy free-range eggs for animal welfare reasons (68%), to support free-range egg producers (52%) and for better taste (44%).
- The majority of respondents believe that free range means free to roam, access to the outdoors and cage-free.
- 28% of free-range egg buyers do not have confidence that the free-range eggs they buy are produced under what they expect to be free range conditions.
- 67% said that they would prefer to pay more for free-range eggs that are guaranteed to have an appropriate stocking density under a mandatory national free.
The free range rip off
A 2015 free-range egg CHOICE report found that consumers are being ripped off when it comes to free-range eggs. An analysis of free-range eggs, barn laid eggs and caged eggs in 96 supermarkets across Australia found that consumers pay up to almost double the amount for free range. Per 100g, consumers are paying on average:
- $0.99 for eggs labelled free range
- $0.71 for eggs labelled barn laid
- $0.55 for eggs labelled caged.
Unfortunately this price premium doesn't mean much. When we looked into a broad cross-section of eggs labelled as free range, we found a wide variation. Of the 55 egg products we found claiming to be free range, only 35 of them listed their stocking density. Of those 35, we found that:
- 14 egg products were compliant with the Model Code and had a stocking density of 1,500 hens per hectare or less.
- 21 egg products were not compliant with the Model Code and had a stocking density over 1,500 and up to 10,000 hens per hectare.
The largest producers and sellers of eggs labelled 'free range' – Pace Farm, Farm Pride, Manning Valley, Woolworths and Coles – declare the highest stocking densities. To find out the stocking density of your free-range eggs, check out our buying guide.
Tips for buying free-range eggs
If you want to ensure that the free-range eggs you buy meet your expectations:
- Download our free-range egg app, CluckAR to find out if your eggs are the real deal.
- Read our free-range eggs buying guide to see what the stocking densities are used across a range of free-range egg products.
- Identify and boycott bad eggs by joining CHOICE's boycott campaign.
- Do some research on different certification schemes to find one you trust and check for details when shopping.
- Check the packaging or producer websites of the eggs for information about their standards and stocking density.
What does free range mean for chickens?
For free range buyers, animal welfare considerations are among the reasons for their choice. It's not surprising that many of our respondents said the meaning of 'free range' strongly relates to the freedom of birds to move around and be outdoors.
Consumers believe that free range should mean:
- birds spend time outside,
- birds have room to move inside and out and
- farmers undertake animal welfare practices.
Unfortunately, images of contented, clucking chooks flapping their wings, dust bathing, socialising and roaming around open green pastures aren't always the reality.
Animal welfare experts, such as RSPCA 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
- facilities that allow them to dust-bathe and forage.
Traditional free range standards are designed to meet these needs but there's concern they're being compromised by large-scale production systems.
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.
Producers still sometimes 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 it is prohibited by the Australian Certified Organic standards.
Stocking density confusion
The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry is a voluntary national guide to the poultry industry that states that the maximum outdoor stocking density for free-range layer hens is 1500 birds per hectare.
It allows a proportionately higher stocking density for meat hens, 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.
The NSW Government applies the code 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. Queensland was the only state with a legislated maximum outdoor stocking density for free range set at 1500 birds per hectare (in line with the Code of Practice), and 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 birds per hectare - Humane Society International
- 1500 or 2500 birds per hectare (with rotation) – 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 Egg Corporation and rejected by the ACCC. This would be a 13-fold increase on the Model Code of Practice's 1500 hens per hectare.
Which stocking density is best?
Arguing for an increase to 20,000 birds per hectare, the Egg Corporation has cited research conducted by the Scottish Agricultural College that shows densities greater than the equivalent of 20,000 birds per hectare "impose some constraint on free expression of behaviour".
What wasn't highlighted was this isolated 2006 study looked at behavioural responses to different indoor floor spaces 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, would have to be taken into consideration."
The Egg Corporation also referred to a commissioned survey of more than 5000 consumers that asked people about their 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 considered to be a reasonable maximum outdoor stocking density for free-range egg-laying hens.
- 2% of free-range egg buyers believe that 10,000 is an acceptable stocking density
- 46% of free-range egg buyers believe that 1,500 is a reasonable stocking density
- 17% of free-range egg buyers said they didn't know.
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.
What about barn-laid eggs?
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.