What does free range really mean?

The new national standard for free range says that hens can be kept at 10,000 birds per hectare — 7 times more than the guidelines published by CSIRO. This is anything but reassuring for people who care about hens.

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LAST UPDATED: 22 July 2016

For the longest time Australia has had no national standard for what classifies a free range egg, which has meant confusion for shoppers and a questionable standard of living for some 'free range' hens. But that's about to change.

State and Federal ministers have for the first time settled on a definition for free range, and a new standard which will be legally enforceable. Sadly, that's where the 'good news' ends.

The bar has been set so low for a free range hen that many shoppers are unlikely to feel reassured by the label.

Based on a voluntary national code (published by CSIRO), which traditional free range egg farmers have chosen to adhere to, consumer group CHOICE and animal advocacy groups called for the maximum stocking density of a free range egg farm to be limited to 1,500 hens per hectare. We were also unanimous in the requirement that hens be able to access the outdoors when they choose.

Despite this, the newly devised national standards state that these free range facilities may have a stocking density of up to 10,000 birds per hectare and that hens should have "regular and meaningful" access to the outdoors, but do not specify what that actually means.

buddy-in-box.jpg
At 10,000 birds per hectare, an individual hen would be afforded about the same amount of space as Animals Australia's office buddy, Buddy, in this picture. Is this what most Australians would call 'free range'?

This decision has been met with outrage — described as "preposterous," "unacceptable" and "a joke", with CHOICE even calling for a boycott of intensive free range farms. 

So how did this happen?

As more people have become aware of the horrors of factory farming, there has been a marked growth of people seeking out higher welfare options. But rather than raising standards to meet the demands of caring consumers, factory farmers have lobbied the government to have the standards for free range lowered so that they can market more eggs as free range. And sadly, Ministers have bowed to this pressure -- ignoring consumers, science and animals.

Fortunately, ensuring more hens have quality of life and can express their natural desires doesn't rest solely with government legislation. Rather, it rests with you.

Here's what you can do:

  • Know the truth behind the label. CHOICE has released a great app which instantly tells you whether the eggs you're scanning come from a genuine free range egg farm or an intensive one.
  • Eat fewer eggs. This will help reduce the demand for eggs, which will stop factory farmers cramming more hens into smaller spaces.
  • Go egg-free. Keep reading for tips on how to make breakfasts and baked goods without using eggs.

By doing one or more of these things, together we can work towards more freedom for hens without needing any legislative change whatsoever.

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A chicken can naturally live for up to 10 years. In the egg industry however, hens are sent to slaughter at around 18 months old and male chicks are 'disposed of' within days.

There's more than one good reason to cut back on eggs

Did you know that for every female chick born into the egg industry, there's a male one whose fate the egg industry doesn't want you to know about? Since roosters don't lay eggs, male chicks are gassed to death or thrown into giant metal grinding machines on their first day of life. For the average person it's hard to fathom tossing a tiny fluffy chirping chick to his death but this is the sad fate for millions of chicks born into the egg industry. (And that's not all they're not telling you ...)

Re-thinking eggs? The good news is that you can make hearty breakfasts, delicious meringues and cupcakes that are lighter than air all without ever cracking an egg.

No eggs in here. Get this recipe and more. Protein packed and cruelty-free. Get the recipe thanks to Minimalist Baker. Funfetti cupcakes -- one bowl, no eggs. Get the recipe thanks to Minimalist Baker. The sweet tooth's favourite breakfast. Get the recipe here. This southwest tofu scramble will hit the spot. Get the recipe here thanks to Minimalist Baker.
Meringues

Choosing mushrooms or avocado instead of eggs for breakfast, swapping eggs out of your favourite baking recipes, or choosing to go egg-freealtogether are just some of the ways you can choose kindness to hens (and male chicks) every day.

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