Greens NSW have launched the ‘Truth in Labelling (Free-Range Eggs) Bill 2011′ to prevent producers from misleading consumers about how laying hens are treated.

But the Australian Egg Corporation wants to increase the recommended maximum stocking density for free-range hens from 1,500 birds per hectare to 20,000 birds per hectare. 

Lauren Fitzpatrick reports for The Milk Moustache.

The term free-range eggs conjures images of clucking hens running freely on large open tracts of farm land. We feel better for buying them. But the truth is that the paying public is being duped.

And right now, that’s perfectly legal.

John Kaye: Our analysis showed that about 16 per cent of eggs labelled as free-range and sold in Australia were not free-range at all; they came from battery hens kept in cages.

VO: 195 million dozen eggs are produced in Australia each year. And in the past decade, demand for free-range eggs has soared. Sales in NSW of eggs labelled free-range have jumped from 20 to 30 per cent. But consumers cannot be assured that they’re always getting what they pay for.

John Kaye: There just weren’t enough free-range laying hens to produce the number of free-range eggs being sold. That alerted us to a whole series of rorts that were happening in the industry. We felt the only way to make sure that when consumers bought a carton of eggs that was labelled free-range, that they could have 100% confidence it was free-range, was to have a legislated definition.

VO: Free-range chickens are allowed to roam freely within a farmyard, shed, or chicken coop. But caged eggs are laid by chickens in intensive factory situations. Many of these are showing up in our free-range cartons.

In a bid to stop what he sees as a deceptive practice, NSW Greens MP, John Kaye, has introduced the Truth in Labelling (Free-Range Eggs) Bill. If it becomes law, it will set a limit of 1,500 chickens per hectare to qualify as free-range.

His amended bill passed through the upper house of state parliament last week. And now there’s an almighty battle looming, as sections of the industry jockey for position ahead of the lower house vote.

John Kaye: They have proved that self-regulation is a complete farce and needs to come to an end; that’s what our bill does.

VO: As well as limiting the stocking density, the bill would outlaw the controversial practice of de-beaking in free-range egg production, where chickens beaks are clipped to a blunt end to avoid pecking in cramped conditions. It would be permitted only in extraordinary circumstances, and after all other avenues had been exhausted.

For animal rights campaigners, appalled by the conditions that over 10 million caged chickens in Australia are kept in, the changes can’t come quickly enough.

Verna Simpson: I’m not sure that you’d call it living; they exist, and they exist a miserable life. And if they had thoughts, I think they’d think, ‘well why the hell was I even born’. Because nothing, everything deserves more respect than that.

VO: At the moment, there is no uniform definition in Australia that is enforceable when it comes to free-range chickens.

Under the National Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, the recommended maximum stocking density for free-range is 1,500 birds per hectare.

Industry body, the Australian Egg Corporation, wants that to be increased to 20,000 birds.

John Kaye: The Australian Egg Corporation is dominated by the three large industrial producers of eggs. Those industrial producers recognise that the market is shifting to free-range, and they want a way to market their products into the demand for free-range, but they don’t want to the hassle of having to do genuine free-range.

VO: The Egg Corporation argues that the $340 million egg industry needs to provide a growing population with an affordable source of quality protein.

But if the big industrial operators prevail, there’s a concern that the whole free-range sector could be compromised.

Verna Simpson: Currently, Egg Corporation are trying to redefine free-range to 20,000 per hectare, whereas free-range farmers work usually around 750 and 1,000 birds per hectare. There’s nothing wrong with the outdoor systems of these bigger farms, but they’re not free range, and they don’t meet consumer expectation, and if Egg Corp get their way and get 20,000 hens per hectare, all the true free-range farmers will be totally disadvantaged, and consumers won’t be buying what they think they’re buying.

VO: Organic free-range egg farmer, Ian Littleton, has owned Clarendon Farms since 1995. He stocks an overall average of 500 chickens per hectare.

Ian Littleton: If you look at the birds around here, you can see that they’re actually exhibiting a whole range of behaviours that the birds in cages just cannot. They’re free to do the dust bathing and so on that is their instinctive behaviour. They can explore; they actually range out quite big differences in the cooler part of the day away from the shed, and also they can interact at their own level with the birds around them. And so, those features are very important.

VO: Ian says he has no doubt that eggs labeled free-range often come from hens packed in with 20,000 other birds.

Ian Littleton: My main concern really is over the issue of stocking densities that have been used in some of the descriptions of free-range. I’ve been a long-term believer in that if you’re going to free-range farm, then you should be farming in a manner which consumers expect the operation to be run, which basically is low stocking rates, birds having unlimited freedom to the range area, and also avoiding management options such as beak trimming, which many of our consumers who buy free-range eggs are quite horrified when they realise that birds have been subjected to that.

Verna Simpson: That’s what we’re after: truth in labeling. We think that the box should tell everybody exactly how that hen lived, and then people can make their own mind, so consumers have a wide-ranging view of what free-range is. But I think the point is that they should be getting what they think they’re getting, and what they’re paying extra money for.

VO: The bill will be debated in the lower house of the NSW parliament in the next few weeks.



  1. getgonestudenttravel November 10, 2011 at 3:54 am #

    Great story Lauren, some really interesting issues are raised!

    – Nesha

  2. Phil Westwood November 16, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    Pressure needs to be kept on the NSW Government to get them to change their minds and at least allow a free vote in the Lower House when this Bill is debated.

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