What Does 'Free Range Eggs' Actually Mean?

Australian governments have agreed on a new national standard for labelling "free range" eggs in a bid to clear up years of consumer confusion. Here's what you need to know about the changes.

Eggs image from Shutterstock

The new standard will be legally enforceable under Australian consumer law from next year. It states that eggs can be labelled free range if hens have "meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range" and an outdoor "stocking density" of up to 10,000 birds per hectare. The stocking density of the hens – the number of hens per hectare — will also be labelled on the pack.

The new standard also follows action by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) against several egg producers, who it alleged had misled consumers about whether their eggs were truly free range. Unfortunately, the new definition of free range could perpetuate confusion and controversy for consumers.

Outdoor access?

Under the standard, eggs labelled free range will need to come from hens that have access to the outdoors. But the hens won't necessarily actually go outdoors.

Most free-range eggs on supermarket shelves come from production systems where hens are housed in large sheds of 20,000 or more birds, with access to the outdoors via openings along the sides of the sheds. A relatively small number of birds may be outdoors at any time, depending on a range of factors including the size of the flock, the design of the barn, the number of openings, and the conditions outdoors.

These large-scale free-range production systems do not necessarily improve the health and welfare of hens compared with barn systems (sheds with no openings to the outdoors) or "enriched cages" (group cages designed to enable hens to express some natural behaviours).

The conditions that produce free-range eggs at large scale and low price will inevitably lead to overcrowding and inadequate supervision at times, and this may lead to cannibalism and other problems.

Many consumer and animal welfare advocates have argued that the term "free range" should be reserved for smaller systems, where hens range on pasture and where all hens are able to express natural behaviours such as foraging, pecking and dust bathing.

The ACCC's view is that eggs labelled free range should come from egg farms where "most hens move about freely outdoors on most ordinary days".

Large producers have argued that the ACCC's definition of free range is unworkable and that their production systems are designed to give hens "the freedom to choose whether or not to go outside". The new standard supports this position, enabling eggs to be labelled as free range as long as hens have "meaningful and regular access" to the outdoors.

However, regular access doesn't necessarily mean that hens will regularly go outside. And if they don't go outside, how meaningful is their access?

How many hens?

The stocking density of hens has also been a controversial issue in the debate about free range. The stocking densities of free-range hens vary from 1,500 birds per hectare or less, for small production systems, to 10,000 birds or more per hectare for large systems.

Smaller producers, the consumer group Choice and the Australian Greens have all argued that eggs labelled free range should have a maximum stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare. This is the outdoor stocking density recommended for free-range hens under the Model Code of Practice, the official national animal welfare guideline for poultry.

The new labelling standard will set a maximum outdoor stocking density for free-range hens of 10,000 birds per hectare, which is the typical stocking density of many large producers who supply to the major supermarkets, contrary to the Model Code.

Choice has called the new standard "meaningless" and has called on consumers to boycott supermarket eggs with stocking densities of 10,000 hens per hectare.

Consumer confusion

For consumers, the confusion around free range looks set to continue. Multiple definitions of free range will still exist. The Australian Capital Territory has already introduced egg-labelling laws that define free range as 1,500 birds per hectare or less, and some brands and supermarkets will seek to differentiate their free-range eggs with different stocking densities.

Consumer protection will also arguably be weaker under the new standard, as it will provide producers who meet the standard with a safe harbour against ACCC action for misleading consumers.

Consumers will need to look at egg labels carefully. A stocking density of 1,500 or less may be the only clue to indicate that eggs are likely to have been produced under a small-scale free-range system, where most hens have access to the outdoors.

Christine Parker, Professor of Law, University of Melbourne; Gyorgy Scrinis, Lecturer in Food Politics and Policy, University of Melbourne, and Rachel Carey, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


    I think the only way to be sure the chickens which your eggs come from are well treated is if you raise your own.

    I've been telling friends and family for awhile that a lot of these terms are completely meaningless but some people are still willing to part with their money despite the fact it doesn't always translate into better treatment for the animals

      What we need is for the smaller chicken farms to state the densities on their packaging. I think not only will this help consumers to make an informed decision. It's great advertising.

        Yes, if they stated the specific densities then there would be no problem. People who were interested could do some research and determine whether or not the stated density fit the criteria of humane."Free-range" is a nebulous marketing term.

    I believe the new code requires manufacturers to specify stocking densities. But there are two things to keep in mind:
    1. Chickens prefer to stay in the sheds. Given the "freedom to roam outside" the little blighters stay inside. The ACCC decided that it was enough for manufacturers to just provide sheds with easy access to the outdoor paddock, but stocking density is defined as hens compared with the paddock size. 50,000 hens in a shed with 20 hectares of empty paddock is going to have a better stocking density than 2,000 hens in the same size shed with a 0.5 hectare paddock. CHOICE would prefer if the farmers were compelled to force the hens to go outside.

    2. The 'terrible' stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare works out to one hen per square meter. The small producers (who have spare paddock space near their sheds) are pushing the public perception that hens should have 1,500 per hectare (one hen per 6.6sqm) of space - but while everyone can get behind the removal of the barbaric conditions of cage eggs, I'm not convinced the average person would feel so passionately that the increase from 1sqm of space per hen to 6.6sqm of space per hen is necessary for their welfare. Anybody who has more than 3 chooks at home is unlikely to have given them more than 20sqm of space to roam.

      "Chickens prefer to stay in the sheds"

      That is flat out bullshit. I grew up on a rural property with chickens, and know from first hand experience that you are either extremely misinformed, or lying.

      "I'm not convinced the average person would feel so passionately..."

      Once upon a time, the average person was cool with slavery, restricting women to domestic duties, keeping non-white migrants from entering Australia, etc. Would you have society remain in the ethical dark ages simply because a morally reprehensible practice is not popular with the average person?

        Sure, you give five chooks a 1m x 5m hutch with a 2 meter roof, they'll spend the day outside. But you put 20,000 chooks in a 150 meter x 15 meter shed with an 8 meter high roof with large openings on each side, they will stay inside where it's cool in summer, warm in winter and they have easy access to food. If they have a 1 hectare paddock available to them or a 50 hectare paddock available to them, those few chooks that do venture outside basically have the space to themselves.

        Now, We can all easily agree that a chook that has 20,000 square meters of land on which to roam that is shared with 20,000 other chooks is far happier than one in a cage, but I'm not sure how CHOICE can assert that a chook that has 133,000 square meters of land on which to roam that is shared with 20,000 other chooks is any happier than one with only 20,000 square meters, or why six square meters per hen is sufficient for "free range" not ten or twenty.

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