Close up of a chicken with brown feathers and red comb and wattle.

Eggs, demystified.

How much do you really know about how eggs are produced in Australia?

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated March 28, 2012

There is no doubt that consumer awareness and concern about the lives led by animals raised for food is on the rise. Ethical concerns are playing an increasingly important role in purchasing decisions.

It seems that egg producers — perhaps more than any other — have responded to this trend by adding an abundance of confusing claims on egg cartons. A lack of legislation and point-of-sale consumer information hasn’t made this any clearer.

Here we demystify the egg production systems in no-nonsense terms to help you make truly informed choices.

Cage Barn laid Certified free range1 Certified organic2
Are hens confined in cages? YES NO NO NO
Are hens provided with a nest/perch? NO YES YES YES
Do hens have space to flap their wings/exercise? NO YES (restricted)3 YES YES
Do hens have access to an outdoor range? NO NO YES YES
Are hens ‘debeaked’? YES YES MAYBE
(depends on certification body)1
Are male chicks killed at birth?4 YES YES YES YES
Are hens sent to slaughter from 18 months old?4 YES YES YES YES

Making sense of labels

1 ‘Free Range’

Unfortunately, there is no legal definition of the term ‘free range’ in Australia so standards between free-range egg farms can vary dramatically. Also, the killing of male chicks on their first day of life and the slaughter of ‘spent’ layer hens at just a fraction of their natural lifespans still occurs.

The biggest difference between free-range farms is the number of birds kept in a certain space. While 1,500 birds per hectare is the recommended maximum, this is not enforceable and large-scale producers are keeping their hens at much higher densities to cash in on the growing market for free-range products. Queensland is the only state that has legislated a maximum of 1,500 hens per hectare. These logos on the egg carton indicate the eggs have come from hens raised on a free-range farm.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Free range egg logos

* Note: The RSPCA logo alone does not guarantee free-range — you may also find the RSPCA logo on barn-laid eggs (see below). Only cartons that are also labelled ‘free-range’ contain RSPCA-approved eggs from a true free-range system.

2 ‘Organic’

Certified organic eggs come from hens kept on farms that meet and exceed the standards of the best free-range facilities. However, simply the word ‘organic’ on an egg carton can sometimes mislead people to think the welfare of hens meets certified organic standards — when it may merely mean that hens in barns are fed organic grains.

The same ethical concerns still exist within ‘organic’ farming systems, such as the killing of male chicks and ‘spent’ layer hens.

These logos on the egg carton indicate that the hens are raised on a certified organic farm.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Organic certification logos

3 ‘Barn Laid’

Hens in barn-laid housing systems are not confined in cages so in theory they can move around. However, high stocking densities can cause stress as they barely have space to spread their wings and are unable to seek privacy for sleeping or nesting. Being confined indoors, these hens never see the sun, and aren’t given the opportunity to perform natural behaviours such as dustbathing and foraging.

As with all egg systems, the same ethical concerns stand with ‘barn laid’ egg systems – it subjects male chicks to being killed on their first day of life, and sends ‘spent’ layer hens to slaughter at around 18 months (a fraction of their 10-year lifespan).

Below is an image of a barn laid system from Australian Eggs.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Image credit: Australian Eggs

‘RSPCA Approved’

The RSPCA Approved system accredits egg farms to RSPCA standards. Barn-laid eggs can be RSPCA Approved, therefore not all RSPCA Approved hens have access to an outdoor area. ‘Debeaking’ of hens is not prohibited under the RSPCA’s system.

Other claims on egg cartons

There are many other marketing terms used on egg cartons to imply higher welfare. These labels should be read discerningly.

Terms such as ‘Vegetarian’, ‘Eco eggs’ and ‘Omega 3 eggs’ for example are not recognised descriptors that define the type of housing system or a level of welfare for hens. The term ‘Cage-free’ is also regularly used but it is important to note that these hens are raised in barns and do not have access to the outdoors. Likewise, don’t be fooled by clever imagery — some cartons may depict birds sitting on nests, or green rolling fields, but unless accompanied by an accreditation label, these images are most likely to be inaccurate.

4 Ethical concerns in all egg laying systems

It is important that consumers are aware that there are ethical and welfare issues common to all egg production systems — including free-range and organic.

All egg systems are faced with a universal ‘problem’ when it comes to the hatching of chicks raised for egg laying. Since only female chickens lay eggs, male chicks who have no commercial value to the egg industry are routinely gassed or ‘macerated’ (ground up alive). As a result, every year some 12 million male chicks are killed on the first day of their lives as waste products of the Australian egg industry.

Another common concern is the slaughter of layer hens years short of their natural life span. Hens will naturally live for around 10 years, but most layer hens in Australia are sent to slaughter as soon as they exceed their productive ‘use by date’. In all egg production systems, from cage to free range, hens are considered ‘spent’ from just 18 months old. Occasionally however, if it’s deemed commercially viable, hens in free-range systems will be kept on for another season which would extend their life for around 12 months — still well short of what nature intended.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A male chick reaches the end of a conveyor belt and falls into a macerator.
Male chicks are killed on their first day of life. Why? Because the egg industry needs to hatch chicks in order to raise female hens (to replace 'spent' layer hens), and these male chicks will never grow to produce eggs. So, they are killed by gas or maceration.
Image credit: Farm Transparency Project

Alternatives that are kinder to hens and chicks

As consumers become aware of the ethical issues relating to all egg-laying systems, more and more are opting for animal-free alternatives that are tasty and nutritious.

Check out our guide to egg-free cooking here — we’ve got you covered from cupcakes to quiche. And if you’d like to make a commitment for hens and their chicks, take the pledge to go egg-free today!