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The truth about free range eggs is tough to crack

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Queensland recently changed its regulation of free range eggs, lifting the number of hens allowed per hectare from 1,500 to 10,000. This is more than a six-fold increase.

Choice and animal welfare and free range farming advocates are in an uproar about the changes. Queensland “free range” no longer means free range at all, they say.

The Queensland Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries says that the new figure is necessary, so that the Queensland egg industry won’t be disadvantaged compared with other states.

In fact no other states have a legislated definition for free range, or minimum stocking density. The department says industry practice is to stock free range egg facilities well in excess of 1,500 birds per hectare.

So, how are we to know that our free range eggs are really free range?

The Primary Industries departments of all Australian state and federal governments work together to set animal welfare guidelines for egg production in the Model Code of Practice for Poultry. The latest version was agreed in 2002 and is now under review. Currently it states that free range can mean up to 1,500 birds per hectare standard, but this could change.

The industry services body that represents producers, the Australian Egg Corporation, admitted last year that some free range egg production facilities stock up to 30 or 40,000 hens per hectare.

The Egg Corp has proposed an industry standard for free range of up to 20,000 birds per hectare. Their proposed standard was assessed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commissioner as likely to mislead and deceive consumers.

In January 2013 supermarket giant Coles announced that it would only stock cage free eggs in its own brand range. For Coles, “free range” would mean a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare outdoors.

The 10,000 figure was not based on any particular evidence or science. Rather it is based on a combination or balancing of what animal welfare requires, what industry say they can accomplish, and what Coles believes consumers feel they can afford based on extensive consumer research.

This article was written by Christine Parker, Professor of Regulatory Studies and Legal Ethics at Monash University and appeared on Hospitality Magazine. For more similar articles, visit Hospitality Magazine

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