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New ‘free range’ standard leaves no room to flap wings

In defiance of the national Animal Welfare Code of Practice for Domestic Poultry,  state Consumer Affairs Ministers have now permitted egg producers to label their eggs ‘free range’, even when they are cramming 10,000 birds into a single hectare.

The national code of practice recommends no more than 1500 hens per hectare in a free range situation.

65% of consumers are now choosing free range eggs.

The decision abuses the trust of the many consumers who pay extra to buy free range eggs because they assume that these chickens, unlike battery hens, are kept in relatively humane conditions.

Large numbers of anything are hard to imagine, so let’s bring this back to what 10,000 per hectare looks like on the ground. There are 10,000 square metres in a hectare, so the labelling standard that allows 10,000 hens per hectare allows one hen to every square metre. A square metre is only 100 centimetres long and wide.

A layer hen is usually about 50 centimetres long, and a little wider than she is long when her wings fully spread. This means a hen in one of these establishments cannot move more than her own body length in any direction before she collides with another hen. Every time she spreads her wings to flap, she is likely to tangle herself with another hen trying to do the same.

True, a stocking density of 10,000 per hectare is not as bad as the space limit still endured by most battery hens – three to four hen in a cage with each hen allotted the area of an A-4 sheet of paper. But it is certainly not the image of happy hens wandering freely over green pastures that most consumers envisage when they hear the words ‘free range’.

CHOICE has a compiled a very useful guide. This guide can be used by consumers to avoid buying eggs that are labelled as ‘free range’ but which do not comply with the national Code or Practice – or with common sense.

National brands some of main offenders

Of particular interest to local consumers, according to CHOICE, chickens producing eggs for the national brands, Woolworths, Coles and Aldi, are among those crammed in at 10,000 per hectare. So are chickens producing eggs for Pace Farm Free Range Eggs, ManningValley Free Range Eggs and Family Value Free Range Eggs, also a brand called Eco Eggs.  No information was provided for IGA home brand.

Buy local from companies doing a better job

Majura Valley (ACT), Tharwa ACT and a Gunning Bum Nuts operation all adhere to the model code and in fact have far lower stocking rates than the code’s stated maximum of 1500. So do Mulloon Creek and Long Paddock free range eggs produced in Palerang and also sold in the Queanbeyan-Bungendore-Palerang area,

For example Mulloon stocks their hens at only 350 hens per hectare. This gives each hen (using all the space available to her) a run of nearly five metres in any direction before she meets another hen. Long Paddock are better again at only 185 hens per hectare – giving each hen seven metres in any direction.  Majura Valley is in-between at 250 birds per hectare.

The new labelling laws do require egg producers to disclose the stocking density.  We can only hope that the same consumers who are compassionate enough to choose free range eggs in the first place will also be discerning enough to check the labels, and reject those where the label admits to a stocking density of over 1500 per hectare.

The good news from the CHOICE report is that 65 percent of consumers are now choosing free range eggs. Twenty years ago, the proportion was around 6 percent. Of course, no form of commercial egg production is cruelty-free. Male chicks, because they will not grow up to lay eggs, are normally killed – quite horribly. Layer hens that are essentially little more than teenagers (about 15 months old) are commonly sent off for slaughter because their rate of egg laying drops off after the first year.

[Ed: If you are interested in the practices of your local free-range egg producers, check with them yourself if there is any deviation from these ‘norms’.  In rural residential areas we are fortunate to be able to have our own egg layers or buy from neighbours who don’t do mass production.]

Nevertheless, the fact that, in only 20 years, ten times as many consumers have come to care enough to buy what they think are free range eggs gives hope that eventually, by our own choice, we will eliminate all forms of cruelty from our diet.

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