A carton of free range eggs these days will cost you roughly double that of a carton of caged eggs. However, when you compare the living conditions of the hens, we hope you’d agree, it’s well worth spending the extra money.
The only problem is that with the lack of a legal definition of the term free range, and no one checking if the suggested guidelines (set out in the Model Code of Practice for Domestic Poultry) are actually being followed, there is no guarantee that you’re getting what you’ve paid for.
For example, the Code recommends a maximum stocking density of 1,500 hens per square hectare, however many free range egg producers are not sticking to this. A recent investigation by Choice found that of the 66 free range egg products they looked at, 26 were from hens stocked above this limit, with some having stocking densities of 10,000 hens per square hectare. The Australian Egg Corporation has previously admitted accrediting free-range egg farms that run with nearly 50,000 hens per hectare.
The good news is that in June of this year consumer affairs ministers from around the country agreed to develop a binding, national standard for free-range egg labelling. Here’s hoping that this will once and for all alleviate confusion amongst consumers, whilst providing clarity for egg producers. The ministers will meet in February 2016 to decide on the specifics of the proposed standard. This should include maximum stocking densities for the various production systems, as well as other regulations, such as the hens’ ability to access the outdoors.
In the meantime, what should you do? It’s worth checking out the information put together by Choice, which lists the stocking densities and price per 100g for over 60 free range egg products on the market. You can view it here: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/eggs/articles/what-free-range-eggs-meet-the-model-code. The products available at the major supermarkets which are sticking to a maximum stocking density of 1,500 hens per square hectare are:
McLean’s Run Free Range
Organic Egg Farmers Organic Free Range
Sunny Queen free range and Sunny Queen Organic Free Range
However, while stocking density is a pretty good indicator of animal welfare standards on the farm, it’s not the be all and end all. You could look for a stamp or logo of accreditation, which indicates that the farm has been audited by a third party to meet a set of standards, but the standards do vary depending on the scheme. You could also buy your eggs at a farmer’s market, where you can chat to the farmer and enquire about production methods, or check out the Alt Directory, which lists small scale producers with high animal welfare standards http://flavourcrusader.com/blog/2011/09/free-range-eggs-australia/.