A portrait of a hen looking side on, with fellow hens in the background.

What does ‘free range’ really mean?

The reality for hens and their chicks trapped in the egg industry will likely surprise you!

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated July 31, 2023

According to the national standard for ‘free range’ hens, 10,000 birds can be forced to live per hectare – almost seven times more than the guidelines of the Australian Model Code of Practice for Domestic Poultry. This is anything but reassuring for people who care about hens…

Until relatively recently, Australia 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. In 2017, State and Federal ministers settled on a definition for free range, and made a new, legally enforceable standard. Sadly, that’s where the ‘good news’ ends.

The bar was set so low for a ‘free range’ hen that many shoppers feel misled by the label.

For people looking for a shorthand way of understanding, it's four chooks on the back of a ute, or four chooks on a double bed, or one per square metre,
John Dunn of Egg Farmers of Australia, 2017
ABC Rural

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 national standards state that these free range facilities may have 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.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A border collie dog named Buddy is sitting in a square marked out with red tape on the floor.
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’?

Conditions in free range egg farms can vary dramatically. While smaller-scale producers might stick to the 1,500 birds per hectare as the recommended maximum, regulations endorsed in 2018 allow farmers to keep hens at stocking density of up to 10,000 birds per hectare and still label their eggs as ‘free range’.

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, the government has bowed to this pressure – ignoring consumers, science and animals.

The ‘free range’ label used on some chicken meat is questionable too…

Chickens bred for their meat in ‘free range’ farming systems may be provided with more space, but most people are surprised to learn they will still spend most of their life inside. When they are young and not yet fully feathered, they cannot regulate their body temperature. Until they are around three weeks old, they are kept inside sheds. But as most broiler chickens are killed for their meat between just four and six weeks old, ‘free range’ chickens may only have access to the outside world for a couple of weeks of their life. You can learn more about broiler chicken farming here.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A mother hen with her chicks, sitting on a bed of straw.
Chickens are remarkably intelligent and social animals, each with a distinct personality. Like any animal, they deserve a life free from cruelty.

There’s more the egg industry would prefer you didn’t know

Regardless of how much space egg-laying hens are given, for every female chick born into the egg industry, there’s a male one whose fate is too often kept hidden. 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. This is just the ‘cost of doing business’ for the egg industry – and this practice is entirely legal in Australia.

This happens in all egg systems – cage eggs, barn-laid, or free range.

It isn’t easy to keep up with what the various logos and labels mean for the animals behind the eggs on supermarket shelves, so we’ve created a simple egg label guide here.

Fortunately, ensuring a higher quality of life for hens and chicks doesn’t rest solely with government legislation. Rather, it rests with you.

A kinder future for all chickens

In light of learning what hens and chicks are forced to endure to produce eggs for supermarket shelves and restaurants, more and more people are choosing to eat, cook, and bake without eggs – making kitchens across Australia, and the world, kinder for these sensitive animals.

For tips, inspiration and mouth-watering recipes, head to VegKit.com or download your Free Veg Starter Guide today.

Together, we can work towards more freedom for hens without needing any legislative change whatsoever!