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Free range eggs have become more popular in recent times due to the exposure of the appalling conditions for battery hens.
With the greater demand and premium prices commanded by free range eggs, a multitude of companies have got in on the act – providing free range eggs. Or so they say.
More companies means more competition, and this means that there are some organisations that are technically ticking the ‘free range’ box, but in actual fact are flouting the very ethics of free range. Choice published an article on free range chicken/egg farming, and provides a good degree of background information on the topic.
Current standards for free range egg production aren’t actually standardised across Australia. For example, Queensland limits free range eggs to 1500 chickens per hectare (keep in mind a hectare is 10,000 square metres). Whereas NSW and Victoria have significantly more lax standards when it comes to free range egg production. In the more populous states, chickens are regularly held to 10,000 chickens per hectare – that’s one bird per square metre.
Now 1 bird per square metre might not sound particularly tight. But don’t forget that a free range chicken is supposed to get some of its food from the outdoor area that it can roam in. For those of you who have had a pet chicken, you will know that a chicken will scratch and eat 1 square metre of grass in only a couple of days. What happens after all that grass is scratched away? Do they peck at dirt and dust?
All free range egg farms should not debeak the chickens, although my understanding is that debeaking is not illegal for free range chicken farms. Debeaking is literally cutting the end of the bird’s beak so that they are unable to peck at one another. This happens when there are too many chickens put together in a small area.
The lack of legitimate and national free range guidelines means that there is confusion and unfairness in the system. Large producers are able to pump out eggs with condensed stocking rates in Victoria and NSW, while Queensland producers need to have more than six times the area to produce the same number of eggs or chickens.
It seems strange that free range is defined differently in different states. So it’s important to read the label each time, and be vigilant – especially when travelling interstate.
In my regular search for legitimate free range eggs in the supermarket (hopefully for a relatively affordable price), I was astounded to read the different conditions offered by companies.
Here are some of my findings when shopping at a supermarket in Wagga, NSW.
Remember to always read the label!