Eggs. That pesky $14 transaction popping up most Sunday mornings when we are barely able to coordinate ourselves to put the avo on the toast, after a big Saturday night. Scanning the menu, we’re relieved – they’re free range, the ethical alternative, right? You know, happy hens pecking under blue skies in lush green fields?
Ok, so while we know there’s heavy marketing involved (thanks Coles and Curtis Stone), most of us associate free range with healthier hens, spared from the confines of cages. But thanks to the Federal Government’s new labelling laws, will free range actually be the better welfare alternative?
Previously, egg labelling mainly consisted of private bodies, such as the RSPCA and farmers’ associations, creating their own private standards. Farmers, upon meeting their requirements, could use these accreditation logos on their packaging, much like the Heart Foundation Tick. However, all the standards were based on different considerations, so without research consumers had little information about farming practices and could not easily compare products. The new laws, coming into effect in April hope to ensure consistency by setting a free range definition and labelling requirements.
Now, under the legislation, eggs can only be labelled free range if:
- Hens had meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range.
- The hens could forage and roam in the range.
- A maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare had access to the range (referred to as stocking density).
Additionally, producers must clearly display the stocking density on their packaging.
The everyday egg muncher may rightly think this all appears reasonable. However, the fact that eggs produced by hens with a stocking density of 10,000 can be legally labelled free range, is ruffling feathers. Indeed, the Federal Government, instead of taking a long-overdue hard stance on animal welfare, has once again pandered to industry.
So where did this controversial 10,000 figure come from? Scientific evidence? Nope. The current industry endorsed guidelines? Guess again… Believe it or not, this stocking density matches the standards created by Coles and consequently Woolworths in 2012. Yes, the Federal Government has entrusted welfare regulation to our two major supermarkets. We all know, despite what they claim, Coles and Woolies are businesses, whose chief objective is profits. High welfare standards clearly don’t correlate with our increasing societal demands for lower prices. We saw this just recently with the one dollar milk scandal. Coles isn’t in a hurry to follow the worldwide movement to a free range stocking density of 1,500, either. During the laws’ development, Coles, via their submission, reiterated “several years” would be required for such a transition, and argued what consumers really need is a “high welfare, value egg” – conveniently like their Coles brand option.
Frighteningly, the Federal Government either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that in legalising such a high stocking density, it’s actively sanctioning and entrenching cruel practices. For perspective, its stocking density is four times higher than the European Union (2,500) and nearly seven times higher than current Australian industry guidelines (1,500). Not only is there no motivation for producers to reduce their flock sizes, CHOICE, who are active campaigners in this area, believe the law will instead see farmers increasing their breeding. And for the poor chickens? It’s been widely reported that a cage system is a better welfare alternative than a 10,000 stocking density.
However, what is most infuriating is that consumers, in believing they are making an ethical choice, will be deceived into supporting the industrial practices they oppose. Egg choices is one of the few ways we can (and do) express our views on animal treatment. But to do so, we rely on accurate marketing. Now, with the Federal Government encouraging the illusion that industrial production is ‘free range’, our trust has been compromised. Many of us don’t have the time nor motivation to discerningly compare products. So, without knowing the implications of stocking density, consumers will go for the cheaper ‘free range’ option. Small producers, with practices actually meeting our expectations, will likely be forced out of the market, leaving less true free range options available.
So how can we ensure our choices reflect our values, and actually promote animal welfare?
For those adult enough to be dealing with grocery shopping (I salute you), I know we’re on tight budgets, but let’s go for the lowest stocking density option. Riding off the rents? Pester them to do the same. Improved laying conditions mean better quality googies. It’s now super easy to compare brands using CHOICE’s free CluckAR app too. Point your phone at a carton, and it’ll tell you whether the eggs are truly free range. And, be adventurous, try the quinoa next time you’re out – trust me it’s delicious!
It’s so easy to ignore the truth when it comes to animal cruelty. But when a party actually responsible for protecting animal welfare distorts the truth, then we can no longer sit back in silence. We have the power to make ethical choices – and I think that’s the least we can do for those unable to protect themselves.