Are We Free To Choose Free-Range Eggs?

Consumers are increasingly concerned about how farm animals are kept, raised, transported and slaughtered. Most people show their concern by buying "ethical" farm products, such as free-range eggs and organic meats. Consumers should not have to undertake extensive research to get a general idea of where their food comes from, but can they trust -- or even understand -- product labelling?

Picture by Chris Ware/Getty Images

The chicken industry and labelling issues surrounding chickens raised for meat and eggs have been a fixture in the news lately. Late last year, two major chicken producers were taken to the Federal Court by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for using advertising and promotional activities to mislead consumers on the welfare of broiler chickens.

The outcome of the case is pending but is likely to hold huge implications for consumers and chicken farmers in Australia.

More recently, the Australian Egg Corporation (AEC) applied to the ACCC to allow producers within the corporation to advertise eggs as "free-range" under a certified trade mark.

The AEC’s proposed stocking density to meet the free-range certification is 20,000 birds per hectare. This represents a huge increase from the 1500 birds per hectare recommended in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals.

It is likely that the majority of public comments submitted in response to the AEC’s application will be strongly opposed to the suggested standard. Opposition from animal protection groups is due to a concern for the animal welfare implications following such a dramatic increase in stocking density. Groups such as the Free Range Farmers Association feel that the AEC’s suggested trademark undermines consumer trust in the free-range label in order to charge a higher price for eggs.

Consumer preference for free-range eggs is what compels industry bodies such as the AEC to market their products as animal-friendly. But in doing so there is the risk that the animal-friendly label will become meaningless.

The AEC’s attempts to find consumer support for the increased stocking density has been shrouded in controversy after claims that the organisation hid results of a preliminary survey revealing consumer support of just 7 per cent out of 5000 participants.

An online survey I distributed earlier this year (results soon to be published) to 840 Australians revealed that 68 per cent look for a free-range label when buying eggs and 32 per cent also preferred a free-range label on meat products.

Yet almost 70 per cent of those surveyed said it is difficult or extremely difficult to identify animal-based foods that promote the acceptable treatment of animals.

More than 30 per cent admitted to have limited or no understanding of the label meanings on animal-based foods. When asked if labels for meat and eggs (such as free-range) are defined in legislation, only 29 per cent correctly said no.

Furthermore, when asked if broiler chickens each have approximately one square metre to move around in, 81 per cent were either unsure or incorrectly said yes.

The connection between consumers and farm animals is weakened by the commercial interests of producers. It is in the producers' best interests to have consumers satisfied with a free-range label rather than being aware of the intricacies of farming methods. As a result, there are sharply polarised perspectives on the ethics of modern farming methods.

We have a situation where an industry group wants to describe a stocking density of 20,000 birds per hectare as "free-range", set against the opposing views of animal protection groups such as Humane Choice, who strongly believe that the conditions included in the AEC’s Certified Trade Mark proposal do not take hen welfare seriously. The RSPCA highlights the impacts of beak trimming and increased stocking density on hen welfare in their response for the ACCC. In the middle are a lot of well-meaning yet confused consumers.

If the AEC is permitted to increase stocking density of hens by over 1300 per cent and stamp a free-range label on it, are consumers going to be aware of this from the label?

The findings of my study and others of similar nature demonstrate that the message of animal welfare is out there: caged eggs are more frowned upon than ever. But consumers are having a hard time putting their dollar to good use.

We may want farm animals to have sufficient space and resources to lead relatively stress-free lives, but if we allow industry bodies such as the AEC to cash in on the feel-good quality of labels such as free-range, we are doing a disservice to both the animals and ourselves.

Sally Healy was the 2011 recipient for the RSPCA Australia Scholarship for Humane Animal Production Research. The Conversation This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lifehacker editor note: Given that cage eggs are the biggest-selling store brand item, it seems there's still a difference between intentions (as evident in the survey cited here) and actual behaviour. Share your thoughts on whether free-range eggs are an accessible choice in the comments.


Comments

    I always buy free range, and tell the kids they taste better because they're from 'happy' chickens. I'd have to see what 20,000 chickens in a hectare field looked like, to tell how happy they are.

      20,000 birds per hectare averages out to half a square meter per bird.

      That isn't a huge amount of space; and is pretty comparable to the space available per bird in most barn raised broiler chicken in Australia. The problem being though, is that the birds will usually end up packing into a corner when intimidated; which can result in both trampling, and heat exhaustion.

      In either case - that kind of density is still better than whats allowed in cage farming methods; but still far from ideal.

    I always buy free range, I figure the only way companies will improve their practice is if we 'vote with our wallets', and free range is a perfect example of something where the public are saying they'll happily pay more if the animal is treated better.

    I made a submission to the ACCC about all this stuff, I can't remember exactly what I said but basically it was that setting the bar for free range so much higher than peoples expectations reduces the ability for the customer to choose based on what they believe is right, and only hurts those producers that are raising real free range chooks.

    The AEC can't be allowed to take advantage of the free range label without producing free range chickens.

    I have my doubts about some products. While it is morally and ethically better to buy free range, an egg is in the end just an egg. Why do I have to pay sometimes $6 more for the free range variety? Do I pay egg-pickers tax? Or is it for the nice expensive labels of pictures of eggs on grass?
    Surely farms and companies get audited to see if they are telling the truth, but what's them to stop
    from having a cage farm at an undisclosed location? I will stick with eggs not more expensive than 3 dollars thanks. If that means I have to eat cage eggs, so be it. Haters gonna hate.

      ... because it costs more to keep chickens free range than it does caged... as in the production costs are higher and therefore it costs more?

        How? lol. I mean, same amount of chickens, only not caged.
        I assume chicken fencing around your farm costs less than a custom designed battery of cages?
        Farmer gets to work in the great outdoors, nice and healthy? Eggs out in the open.
        Do they have a special egg vacuum to maintain? Fox zappers?

        I don't know rrly. All I do know is that some free range products cost wayy to much.
        There are like more than 10 different brands, all ranging from low $4's do ridiculous $8.

        Funny enough, those isles are always fully stocked. Hint hint.

          The last time I checked, land isn't free...

    Simple solution. If you have the slightest semblance of a backyard, get yourself a couple of chooks. You know how they are treated and what they're fed, and our 3 Australorps(?) give us 2 dozen eggs a week

    Interesting timing, I watched Jamie Oliver's "Fowl Dinners" last night. It was a relatively open and honest presentation of how the poultry industry operates in the UK (fairly similar to how things run here). It's available on YouTube and is well worth the time to watch - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCBtkVSk3OU

    As for where do I get my eggs - I get them from our garden if I can find where the ducks and hens have laid them (the hens are predictable, the ducks are sneaky little buggers).

    I buy the cheapest eggs. You can actually hear me say in the egg aisle "which are the cheapest, and most battery farmed eggs on sale", Raises some eyebrows when I grab the 3.00 per dozen pack and the hippie next to me is looking at 6.00 for 6....

    I buy these:

    http://www.santalia.com.au/cackleberries/chickens-and-cackleberries.html

    I found supermarket free-range eggs tasted very similar to the barn or cage produced eggs. The ones I linked to are the closest tasting I've found to grabbing a freshly laid egg from a backyard chicken. I get them from an organic place and the cost is comparable to the supermarket free-range stuff, but the taste is out of this world.

    The best eggs come from your own chickens in the back yard. They are easy to care for, Ours are fed most pf our kitchen scraps, thereby saving waste. They produce great fertiliser for the garden.

    Our two bantams have a secure pen of 10 square metres, or 2 Sq M per small chook - and it is scratched bare, even though they don't spend many waking hours in there. The chooks certainly don't consider it to be free range, and can't wait to be let out into the garden each morning! Half a metre per chook is not free range, and calling it that is a flat- out lie. I now know that many so called free range eggs come from farms stocked at densities well above the images of green fields shown on the box. When we need to buy eggs, we only get true free range eggs at 1500 hens per hectare. I hate deceptive packaging, misleading claims, and "certification" that doesn't actually mean what it claims.

Join the discussion!