When are Free Range Eggs not Free Range?


When our government sells us out

The egg wars have been raging across this land for decades, like the 30-year war that devastated Europe in the middle ages. These last few years we had a voluntary standard, recommended by the CSIRO: a maximum of 1500 chooks per hectare. The big producers never conformed to this standard, and consumer organisations continued to pressure the government for new legislation.

Late in 2016, the federal government acted at last. What did Minister for Consumer Affairs Michael McCormack do? He didn’t introduce a new standard that defined what constitutes ‘free range’; instead he introduced a ‘National Information Standard.’ What wonderful weasel words. Yes, but are they free range weasels or caged weasels?

The new ‘standard’ increased the upper limit to 10,000 birds per hectare. Hard to believe, I know. Harder to believe is that there’s no mandate in the standard for hens to actually spend time outdoors. It merely recommends that ‘hens have meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range.’ More weasel words. The result? Mass producers are free to stick the free range label on eggs laid by hens squashed into those massive cages, just as they did before.

Egg on their Faces
The only concession to producers of real free range eggs is a requirement to print the stocking density on the carton. You can read McCormack’s feeble justifications for selling us out to the big end of the egg industry in a CHOICE article headed Shoppers lose in new free range egg standard.

Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey called the new standards preposterous, and called on us consumers to  boycott 19 brands of eggs – the worst offenders from Woolworths, Coles and Aldi. In stark contrast, NSW government minister Vic Dominello welcomed the agreement, saying ‘our decision today means consumers can be sure they’ve got what they’ve paid for.’

And they wonder why we despise our politicians. Federal Small Business Minister Kelly O’Dwyer claimed the new standard ‘provides certainty for farmers which will help encourage innovation and investment in the industry.’ So it wasn’t about doing anything for us consumers, who eat 13 million eggs every day, but about looking after the egg industry and the big roosters that dominate it.

And what did the big egg producers say? ‘Cages are better for chickens than free-range,’ they told the ABC earlier this year, as consumer organisations and the RSPCA are pushing to get rid of battery chooks. I don’t like their chances.

The Fine Print

If it weren’t for CHOICE, we’d be lost: Their comprehensive Buying Guide lists all the egg producers in every state, with their stocking densities. It’s a very long list, so we’ll keep it simple: your best guide is not the picture of free roaming chooks on the egg carton but the stocking density number. The real free range eggs will say 750 hens per hectare, the fake ones will say maximum 10,000 hens per hectare. This number can be hard to find on some cartons; the bigger the number, the smaller the print.

This picture is for real, from Fryars on Kangaroo Island. The chooks go into mobile sheds at night, and the Maremma sheepdog keeps the foxes at bay. The sheds are moved every few days to new patches of pasture. There are many similar producers across the country, with stocking densities down to 350 hens per hectare. The eggs clearly have a richer taste, as you’d expect, and they cost between $8 and $12 a dozen.

Back to the big guys: just 3 of them produce over half the over half of the ‘free range eggs’ sold in Australia: Novo, Pace Farm and Manning Valley. They also supply the eggs for the supermarkets’ own brands. Coles and Woolworths are happy with a stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare; no surprises there.

With branded eggs, a dead giveaway are producers who offer cage eggs and free range eggs: Pace Farms, Farm Pride, Pirovic and Aldi Lodge Farm. Choice offers a free range egg detector app for free, and here’s a list of the worst offenders:

  • Aldi Lodge Farm
  • Coles Free Range Eggs
  • Country Fresh
  • Eco Eggs
  • Farm Pride
  • Field Fresh
  • Foodland
  • Western Australia Golden Eggs
  • Manning Valley
  • Meggles Farm
  • Misty Mountain
  • Pace Farm
  • Pace Omega 3
  • South Gippsland
  • Woolworths Select
  • Pioneer
  • Pirovic
  • Otway
  • Essential Foods
  • MMM