Rising consumer awareness about ethical (and unethical) farming practices has seen the demand for ‘free-range’ eggs increase dramatically in Australia and abroad. The label commands a premium price at checkout, so it is important to understand what it means, and which brands are actually compliant. Until recently, there was no clear national standard. However, the CSIRO ‘Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals’ (2002) defines how hens in free-range systems should be kept.

Specifically, it states that birds should be housed in sheds with access to an outdoor area, with no more than 1500 birds per hectare. Such conditions enable chickens to more freely express natural behaviours such as nesting and preening. However, a new legal definition recommends that hens have ‘regular’ and ‘meaningful’ access to outside spaces and sets a maximum stocking density of 10,000 birds per hectare – more than six times higher than the number recommended by CSIRO. The recent announcement (on 31 March 2016) is a loss for hens, animal activists, free-range egg farmers who comply with the Model Code and consumer advocates, with the latter calling for people to boycott 19 brands that have an outdoor stocking density of up to 10,000 birds per hectare. These brands include: Eco Eggs, Pace Omega 3 and Woolworths Select. Doctor Jed Goodfellow, Senior Policy Officer at RSPCA Australia, said the new industry standard places: “… the interests of big business ahead of consumers, with hen welfare coming a distant third.” Despite this, one positive change is that free-range egg producers are now required to ‘prominently disclose’ the outdoor stocking density of hens on their egg cartons. This move enables consumers to make better choices at the checkout. You can make your next purchase a more ethical one by only supporting brands that comply with the Model Code of Practice. See: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/eggs/articles/what-free-range-eggs-meet-the-model-code

Further reading: CSIRO. (2002). Domestic poultry 4th edition: Primary industries standing committee model code of practice for the welfare of animals. SCARM Report 83. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing. Retrieved 12 May 2016 from: http://www.publish.csiro.au/Books/download.cfm?ID=3451
Fair Trading. (2016). Fact sheet: Egg labelling. Retrieved 12 May 2016 from: http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/Factsheet_print/Consumers/Buying_goods/_Egg_labelling.pdf
Goodfellow, J. (2016). Free range hens: What will ‘meaningful’ mean to them? Retrieved 15 May 2016 from: https://www.rspca.org.au/media-centre/news/2016/free-range-hens-what-will-“meaningful”-mean-them
Han, E. (2016). Free range egg farms fined $300,000 for misleading shoppers with false claims. Retrieved 12 May 2016 from: http://www.smh.com.au/business/consumer-affairs/free-range-egg-farms-fined-300000-for-misleading-shoppers-with-false-claims-20160415-go70cu.html
Patch, N., & Day, K. (2015). CHOICE: Free-range eggs buying guide. Retrieved 12 May 2016 from: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/eggs/articles/what-free-range-eggs-meet-the-model-code
Theodosiou, P. (2016). Consumers urged to boycott 19 egg brands after free range definition announced. Retrieved 12 May 2016 from: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2016/03/31/consumers-urged-boycott-19-egg-brands-after-free-range-definition-announced