Why Free-Range Eggs Cost More But Don't Help The Hens

We've frequently made the point that the definition of free-range eggs is somewhat elastic, even before deceitful producers start misusing it. New research by CHOICE reinforces that you'll definitely pay a premium for 'free range', even if the provenance of those eggs is far from clear.

Eggs picture from Shutterstock

First, a reminder: there's no single recognised standard for what 'free range' means, and definitions vary from state to state in Australia. Simply trusting that 'free range' means birds are allowed to roam in uncrowded conditions is naive in the extreme.

CHOICE has lodged a "super-complaint" with NSW Free Trading over the way caged eggs are promoted and marketed in that state. (The "super-complaint" system is a trial designed to speed up responses to major consumer issues.)

"CHOICE research has shown that consumers purchasing free-range eggs expect that the layer hens have access to the outdoors and space to move around with limits on the number of birds on the outdoor range -- but the Australian Egg Corporation (AEC) itself has admitted there is huge variation in the conditions in supposedly free-range operations," CHOICE campaigner Angela McDougall said in a statement announcing the complaint. The definition being pushed by consumer advocates is 1500 birds per hectare, while the AEC wants 20,000 birds per hectare to still count as "free range".

While the definitions might not be clear, the price benefits for the sellers of claiming 'free-range' status are rather more evident. Per 100 grams, this is how much NSW consumers are paying for eggs:

Type Price
Cage eggs 43 cents/100g
Barn eggs 89 cents/100g
Free-range eggs 93 cents/100g

Pricing rorts aside, how much do consumers actually care? We've noted before that caged eggs account for 80 per cent of house brand sales in supermarkets. CHOICE suggests 40 per cent of sales of eggs in Australia are free-range.


Comments

    I thought right now the definition was as simple as not confined to a cage; whether that meant there were 10,000 cramped on the floor rather than in cages didn't matter?

    At least I think that's how it is in most of the world, so perhaps that's where I got it from.
    http://www.makeitpossible.com/guides/egg-labels.php

    A better description would definitely be nice!

    I only buy free range eggs, because i assumed they where better taken care of.
    If thats not the case, then well......

      Personally I think hens jammed into an open area, even a super crowded one, are still better off than hens jammed into a cage so small they can't even move. Screw the cost difference, if the hens are even the tiniest bit better off with 'free range' then that's what I'm buying.

        This is part of the problem, its a vicious cycle...

        Some people take the ethical standpoint and pay twice (or more) for their eggs so they are free range. Companies assume they can get away with it and charge this. Bulk of consumers either don't care or can't afford it so they buy cage, thus continuing the cycle.

        The only real way to fix this is to either have all or most consumers move to free range, thus in economies of scale making things cheaper (through market competition, look at homebrand eggs), or legislate changes enforcing free range.

        Either one of these would be a very hard thing to do, the first would work out better but is much harder to get going as it is reliant on market forces and convincing consumers to pay more for something (whether or not they can afford it)

          You don't know how anything works, do you?

          Do you have any idea how little eggs "consumers" actually buy? The vast majority of the eggs that are produced are actually being used to make everything from noodles to cakes. The factories that make those foods sure as hell aren't going to pay more for "free range" eggs when they know damn well that it's just a gimmick.

          And you aren't making any sort of a difference, even if you own your own chickens and get your eggs that way, unless you also bake your own bread, etc with those eggs, and pretty much never buy anything store bought. Good luck with that, if you live in the city. And not everyone can live in the country. Some people actually have jobs that require them to live in the city.

          This is similar to the misconceptions surrounding land fills. They aren't filled with consumer trash. They are filled with construction waste. You are just a spec of dust, and your actions have no detectable effect on the world. Or we could talk about "carbon footprints" if you want. Ever heard of a volcano? Yeah, one of those spews more carbon into the air during one eruption than all of humanity combined does in a year. You really think 7 billion people is a lot? If population numbers were all that mattered, we would be on the endangered species list.

        Wasn't there a study within the past year that showed that a caged hen is no more stressed than a free range one?

          There was, but my trust in that particular study is on thin ice after reading this line:

          "Dr Downing carried out his research independently, but received research funding from the Australian Egg Corporation Limited. "

          I could be wrong and the study could be completely unbiased, but I just have this innate mistrust of any study that's funded by someone that may have a vested interest in the outcome.

            Well who is going to provide funding for a truly unbiased study? Is there even such a thing?

    Stuff the shop eggs, they stink! I get 'em from my neighbor, he's got free healthy chooks and plenty of cheap eggs for neighbors.

      It is so easy to keep a few chickens in the back yard. I have 5. They eat our kitchen scraps, and in return, give us eggs and fertiliser for the garden.

        so true, we have two for now. Thinking of more but about a dozen eggs a week is good enough from the chickens.

        If I didn't live in an apartment, I totally would. My tiny balcony is already super cramped with my citrus trees and herbs and various vegetables.

          Sounds like you've got more than enough room for about 1000 free-range chickens based on the definition the AEC uses...

          Try quail! They're great for balconies, the eggs are often reported to be more nutritious, they're more disease-resistant, and they 're actually more economical. ...or so the 'pro-quail propaganda' seems to go anyway.

      I'm with you! We have friends with chooks - the yolks are bright yellow and the eggs are yummy! We give them scraps and other stuff in exchange. The chooks are strong and healthy and get a great mixed diet along with wandering time during the day.

    If you're in Victoria, there's an egg supplier called Family Homestead who are actually not trying to bullshit consumers with their farming practices via ambiguous wording and seedy side businesses. I think that their eggs are only found in Coles (in fairly plain packaging), and they are expensive, but they are the only ones I'll buy.

      they have the live new cam feed?
      you can pan the camera as well? or is that another farmer?

        I think that's another supplier--I could be wrong. But they're willing to let you visit their farm by appointment. I'm sure there are others out there who are actually upholding good practices, but I'm happy sticking with what I've learnt.

        This is what you're looking for
        http://www.ecoeggs.com.au/chookcam/

    Good post but I think the headline is irresponsible. Some people will skim over it and think "right, free range doesn't help the hens so I just won't bother any more." "Doesn't always help the hens" would have been better.

    +1 with the Family Homestead eggs (I'm not at all affiliated with them, I just like their product and their practices).

      they the ones with the live video cam feed on their website???

      For Real??? Did you know that not all eggs packaged into a brand are necessarily produced on that farm, under the conditions you read about? when a producer gets too big of a market share to supply their own eggs, they usually buy in eggs from another farm, so who's eggs are you really eating?

    Not all free-range eggs are alike, so all free range eggs do not help hens.

    Doesn't seem like a very water-tight argument. I'm sure there are ways to find companies which align with the public's perception of free-range, so the tone of your article is disappointing. Myself, I try to purchase free-range eggs from brands which don't also have a caged egg line, and have something else on the packaging to indicate they are actually free-range. Obviously this isn't the best way to do it, but it's what I have time for at the moment, and it's better than "well they're not all the same so I'll just buy caged and save a buck".

    Also, it's not too surprising that house-brand eggs have a higher proportion of caged to free - people who buy house brands are more likely to be budget conscious, so it's not an entirely helpful statistic.

      Agreed. If there's even the slightest chance that my buying decisions influence the decisions of egg farmers, I'm going to make sure my decisions are as ethical as possible. If you're in WA, Eggs by Ellah aren't too expensive but seem to be very free range in the hens-roaming-the-grass-happily sort of way.

        Interesting, but the Farmer's Market she sells out are a bit out of the way for us. We buy these eggs from a local organic shop. Probably the tastiest ones I've had, not including from your own chickens.

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

    I'm a farmer, but not of eggs. I do know that in Victoria you are allowed 15000 hens in a hectare and still regarded as free range. The thing is hens all congregate around the water source and are not spread out. All grass and grubs are gone in next to no time and you're left with a dirt field. 15000 hens per hectare equates to 1.5 hens per square metre, so not much different to caged hens. Unlike caged hens, they are constantly walking in their own excrement. Unlike caged hens, any disease spreads like wildfire through the flock due to proximity. Hens are aggressive in these large congregations and attack each other, which has resulted in one large free range supplier I know in de-beaking all their hens. Now they can't range the field anymore. These birds are worse off than caged hens. And you're paying for it.

      Isn't most of that true of any stock animal? That's one of the reasons for rotational grazing.

      In terms of size, a battery cage has a floor that has to be at least 0.5 square metres per hen. In terms of equivalents to free range, that's roughly the difference between a "capsule hotel" room (2.5 sqm) and the size of a second bedroom in Australia (~9 sqm). I'm no PETA supporter, but that sounds cruel to me.

        Sure you can rotate your stock, but free range hens are tied to the shed (quite large and expensive) and the land that surrounds that shed and can't move. I do know of one new farmer that is introducing mobile sheds (horrendously expensive), but that is super rare and not in place yet. So no benefit in moving the hens then for the majority of free range farms.

        And as for the de-beaking. Well, the hens are disfigured (no higher welfare there) and can't peck the ground. They are reduced to the same grain feed as the caged eggs, the result being eggs that taste exactly the same as caged eggs.

        Really, the only benefit is to those small landholders (and I include myself) that have a small batch of hens for personal use that are proper free range.

        You really can't do true ethical free range on a large commercial scale. And all the customers that are purchasing the free range eggs aren't really helping that many hens; just lining someones pocket.

    Wouldnt a set of Hen Ethical Treatment star rating systems work, let the market decide how much people will pay for what degree of treatment. If each rating was strictly regulated violations harshly punished, i could then buy the eggs from hens that were treated the best that i can afford, i spend too long comparing prices of eggs vs their caginess/freeness, i never remember which one i buy as i dont buy them too often but $6 for a dozen eggs is a bit much.

      In Victoria, there has been a new HenCare quality assurance system put in place to counter what you've just stated. But I don't know if any free range producers are signing up for it. Some caged egg producers are though.

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