We all know that buying cage eggs is a big no-no, and if you are like us, you are grappling with the issue of which eggs to buy. Unfortunately the term ‘free range’ is not all it’s cracked up to be. In Australia we don’t have laws that specify exactly what each of the different egg production systems mean (free range, barn laid etc.), so the term ‘free range’ on an egg carton is not really a guarantee of anything.
According to the Domestic Poultry Code (government guidelines for the egg industry), the maximum stocking density for hens producing eggs labeled as free range should be no more than 1,500 birds/hectare. However, Egg Corp (the industry body representing egg producers) has admitted that around 1/3 of so-called free-range egg producers are stocking hens at more than 20,000 birds per hectare, while some eggs come from flocks of up to 120,000 birds!
So, if you are looking to support producers doing the right thing by their layers, we recommend the following: http://consumewithcare.org/what-to-buy/
All certified organic eggs must be produced according to the organic standards, which specify that hens must have access to pasture, are stocked at a maximum density of 1,500 birds/hectare and must not de-beaked.
Buy accredited free range
There are several different organisations which accredit free range egg farms, each with a different set of standards. Humane Choice accredited farms uphold the highest animal welfare standards. The RSPCA, The Free Range Farmers Association (VIC) and The Free Range Poultry Association (QLD) also set high standards.
Check out the alt.egg directory
The alt.egg directory (flavourcrusader.com/blog/2011/09/free-range-eggs-australia/) is a comprehensive list of small-scale family farms producing true free range or pastured eggs that are not necessarily accredited. These eggs are usually sold at farmer’s markets, at specialty health food or organic stores or butchers specialising in organic and/or free range meats.
When you find yourself face to face with the farmer behind his rows of eggs, grab this opportunity to arm yourself with information. Asking questions is the best way to ensure that you’re purchasing ethically raised, healthy foods and supporting sustainable farmers.
Here are some questions to get you started.
How many hens do you have, on how much land?
(The overall size of the property is irrelevant – it depends how much range area the hens are able to access).
How many hens in each flock and how many hens in each shed?
Intensive producers usually run many thousands of hens in their sheds – maybe 40,000 or more. Genuine free range farms are unlikely to have more than 1000 hens in each shed.
Are the hens beak trimmed?
There is no need for free range chickens to be beak trimmed unless they are intensively farmed. Chickens (like humans) tend to become aggressive when they are crowded together and beak trimming is the usual method of preventing them from injuring each other.
What are the hens fed?
Hens on free range farms utilising low stocking densities and maintaining good pasture growth will obtain up to 50% of their daily feed from the paddock. Supplementary feed is required to meet the nutritional requirements of each hen, to maintain bird health and for the farmer to obtain consistent laying rates. The supplementary feed should be natural grains – not pelletised feed containing colouring additives to enhance yolk colour. If the hens are able to eat green feed there is no need for these additives, which can cause allergic reactions in people who eat those eggs.
Does the feed contain meat meal?
Many egg producers (particularly those using pelletised feed) include meat meal in the hens’ diet. While chickens are not vegetarian – they eat worms, spiders and insects which they find in the paddocks – the meat meal included in poultry feed is often derived from dead poultry. This can be either male chicks which are destroyed at hatcheries or ‘spent’ hens which have ended their useful lives on cage or barn farms. Giving same species feed to animals is what started the Mad Cow outbreaks in the UK and Europe.