In Australia there is an increasing awareness of the ethical issues surrounding factory egg farming and the need to transition to free range egg farming practices. Through considered planning its possible for the Australian egg industry to change over to free range practices allowing the industry to not only survive but thrive. But nothing is simple when it comes to genuine free range egg farming. The legal definitions, labelling rules and industry disagreement over what actually constitutes ‘free range eggs’.
What are free range eggs?
Free range eggs come specifically from hens which are allowed free access to an open range during daylight hours, whilst still housed in nesting sheds at night. Under Australian law to label your eggs or farm as free range the hens must have daily outdoor access with a maximum density of 10,000 hens per hectare or effectively one hen per square metre. This is to avoid overcrowding, however many in the industry believe even this is too generous and instead maintain stock levels at 10-25% of this density.
Hens do require secure housing to sleep to protect them from cold weather and predators which will otherwise target the flock and this housing isn’t required to provide the same generous density requirements. As Australia has a relatively mild climate most egg farmers are able to operate with their hens having outdoor access year round with many high tech options including automated sheds which release the hens at sunrise and close in the evening. To maintain sufficient lay rates sheds are fitout in many cases with heating or cooling systems to provide a comfortable environment. Egg laying is generally completed within the sheds in nesting boxes which are connected to catchment systems automating the collection process. This allows a much more efficient farm which lowers costs for the farmer and end consumer and minimises intrusive human interactions within the sheds which can stress the flocks.
How is 10,000 hens per hectare really ‘free range’?
To regulate the usage and labelling of the term ‘free range’ with regards to eggs, the Australian Federal government put in density limits that to use the term farmers must have a maximum fo 10,000 hens per hectare on their farm. Whilst this does provide an upper limit, many other organisations believe this is set too high.
The CSIRO independent modelling on egg farming practices states that farmers should limit stock density to a maximum of 1,500 per hectare to manage soil nutrient levels and avoiding toxicity from excess ammonia and poisoning of waterways.
The RSPCA has shared in multiple published literatures that healthier stock levels should be maintained at a maximum of 2,500 hens per hectare.
The Australia certified organic free range labelling requires density levels to be below 1,000 hens per hectare.
Comparing Australia to other comparable countries, European Union member States and New Zealand cap the maximum density to 2,500 hens, which is a quarter of the 10,000 hens per hectare that Australia allows.
So whilst the Australian government has set the standard at 10,000 hens per hectare, there is a wide variance in the industry and many commercial egg farmers who set their standards to the RSPCA, CSIRO or their own personal standards.
Free Range Egg Facts
- Studies have shown real free range eggs to have less cholesterol and saturated fat, more vitamin A and Omega 3 than conventionally farmed eggs
- Increasing demand for free-range eggs by consumers has led to the rapid conversion of most caged egg farms in Australia in favour of the more ethical (and even potentially more profitable) alternative of free range egg production
- As more consumers in Australia have demanded free range alternatives and more suppliers have come into the market, average cost of free range eggs has fallen over 60% – with many producers being at similar pricing to previous caged egg varieties
- Not all “free range” eggs are equal – with a wide variety of practices, hen density and sleeping arrangements. Whilst labelling rules require a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare, there are commercially operating egg farms at less than 400 hens per hectare.
How do you know the eggs you’re buying are really free range?
Australia thankfully regulates ‘free range’, however you can use Choice’s ap CluckAR, Using it to scan the egg carton, it will come up with a quick rating and the stocking density, of between 1,000 birds to 10,000 birds per hectare.
What are the best real free range eggs in Australia?
This is subjective dependent on whether you’re looking for the best tasting eggs, ethical considerations or overall value. I personally prefer nothing more than eggs from my own hens, however there are great alternatives in most mainstream stores. Honourable mentions include:
- Sunny Queen Free Range Eggs – 1,500 hens per hectare
- McLean’s Run Free Range Eggs – 1,500 hens per hectare
- Glorious Googies – 400 hens per hectare
Check out their individual profiles to find out more about each of these egg producers helping to raise the standards in Australians free range egg production industry.