When I first thought about writing this post, I was confident I was already doing the 'right thing'. Now I'm not so sure.
There is an abundance of information out there on the internets about free range eggs, and once I started wading through it, I quickly realised it was not as straightforward as I had thought. Just because the words ‘Free Range’, ‘Cage Free’ or even ‘RSPCA Approved’ are on the label, doesn’t guarantee you’re buying eggs laid by hens that are truly free to roam.
It all boils down to this; there is no one free range standard. Various industry bodies - Australian Egg Corporation Ltd (AECL), Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia (FREPA) or the Free Range Farmers Association Victoria (FRFA) – and animal welfare organisations (e.g. RSPCA and Humane Society International) have certification programs, but there is no consistency across the requirements, and they are all voluntary.
Some of the maximum stocking densities (look at me, learning all these farming words!) for the various certifications are;
- 750 hens per hectare - Free Range Farmers Association (Vic)
- 500 hens per hectare (fixed range area) - RSPCA
- 2500 hens per hectare (rotational range access) – RSPCA
- 10,000 hens per hectare - Coles and Woolworths own brand ‘free range’ eggs
- 20,000 hens per hectare - Australian Egg Corporation Ltd (rejected by the ACCC)
As you can see, there is quite a range. And all of them will have free range written on the label, in some form or another. There is also a National Model Code of Practice (1500 hens per hectare), published by the CSIRO as a guide to the poultry industry, but again, it’s completely voluntary.
For those of you that are not conversant with units of land measurement, a hectare is 10,000 square meters, or a 1000m by 1000m (1km by 1km) square. These numbers equate to anything from 13 square meters per hen, to 1 square meter per hen.
Added to that confusion, there have been occasions where farms that sell both cage and free range eggs, have passed cage eggs off as free range to meet the demand for free range eggs, and making an increased profit along the way.
So, what does this all mean? What eggs should I be buying? And which ones should I avoid? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.
I personally try to buy my eggs at farmers markets, as I feel more comfortable being able to talk to someone who’s actually seen the hens that have laid the eggs. However, that’s not always possible. Animal Welfare Labels – a website managed by Humane Society International, as part of their campaign for Truth in Labelling – has a great egg guide detailing the most common supermarket egg brands and the details of their hen treatment, so you can make a decision based on the practices that are important to you.
I’m sad to admit that I have bought two of the brands that are now before the ACCC for misleading labelling (Eggs by Ellah, and Swan Valley Free Range), but my other supermarket regulars, Margaret River Eggs seem to be ok –not certified by any of the bodies above, but claims a density of 2,500 hens per hectare (I really should have shortened that to hph before now…), and the owner is president of Free Range Egg Association.
So, unfortunately, all I can suggest is to do your research, and look for eggs specifying a density of less than 2,500hph.
Do you buy free range eggs? What’s your favourite way to eat them?