Hijacking free range

Some months ago in my backyard chook pen it was out with the old and in with the new, and we’ve been between laying hens since and buying eggs. Buying eggs reluctantly, because the difference between supermarket eggs and backyard eggs is as great as that between tinned asparagus and fresh asparagus, or pap bread and proper bread, frozen carrots and real carrots.

Did you get the message?

Well, a week or so ago because of my changed domestic circumstances I fronted up to the wall of egg cartons at the supermarket, for the first time in many years, and I was immediately struck by a new reason for reluctance. Price! In some cases close to $7 for a dozen eggs, then I saw that in many cases it’s not a dozen at all but 10, the new dozen. A little further off were the eggs of caged hens, at a lower price, and as disgusted as I am by the extraordinary cruelty inflicted on hens for the sake of cheaper eggs – and by our governments’ and the RSPCA’s tolerance of this – my mind did flit to the saving. And back again, I’m pleased to be able to tell you.

Just as I wouldn’t buy a carton of 10 eggs as a matter of principle, I’d rather go without eggs than buy the product of cruelty.

The other thing that struck me were the photos of lush pastures on the free-range cartons. Made me want to sink into the grass for a nap, and given the low number of chooks in the photos I’d be reasonably confident of not sinking into chook poo. As someone who has seen many times what a few chooks can do to a patch of grass I was sceptical.

My scepticism was not that the eggs had been laid by chooks deemed to be free range, but that the chooks had access to lush green pasture. I am prepared to accept that on some free-range poultry farms with a great deal of lush land and relatively few chooks and a rigorous system of moving the hens between different paddocks the hens do have access to grass. Maybe not always the rampant grass of the photos, but grass nonetheless.

To my surprise, however, grass is not required by the definition of free range. The definition and requirements of free range for poultry are generally accepted as that set down in a poultry welfare code drawn up in 2001 – it is a code, not a law – and which says free range hens must be housed in sheds and have at least eight hours a day access to an outdoor range at a stocking rate of no more than 1500 birds per hectare.

That’s generous space for a hen, just under seven square metres, although without rotation 1500 would reduce the lush grass of a hectare to dirt sooner than you’d imagine. My seven hens have about six square metres each and a brave blade of grass anywhere in the 40 square metres would count its life in seconds. The banana trees survived longer but not much longer. Still, the hens are moving about, dust bathing, scratching and free to range within limits, and that’s a good reason to pay more for free-range eggs.

The Australian Egg Corporation, however, is seeking to change the standard for free range so that more egg producers it represents can put the words ‘‘Free Range!’’ and a photo of lush grass on their egg cartons. The corporation wants the limit on the number of hens per hectare increased from the 1500 to 20,000! Twenty thousand hens to one hectare is one hen per half a square metre, 13 times less space than a free range hen has now. In my chook pen in a corner of my yard, next to and behind a garden shed, I’d have not seven but 80 chooks!

The egg corporation’s chief, James Kellaway, warns that the price of free-range eggs will increase to more than $10 a carton if the proposed new standard is not accepted. In effect he is arguing that unless it is easier and cheaper for egg producers to label their eggs free range people will have to pay more for real free range eggs. So, he seems to believe, consumers will be happier paying less for eggs that are less free range. Crowded range, perhaps.

Only the ACCC stands in the way of this new deal for people who prefer free range eggs, and it’s calling for public comment.

Should the egg corporation be permitted to hijack the term free range? Shouldn't we be able to pay a little more for a better deal for farm animals?

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