New definition of ‘free-range’ eggs causes outrage

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 15th September 2011

Bacon and EggsNew ‘free range’ egg production standards for Australia, drafted by the egg industry body, Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL), have caused outrage amongst free range egg farmers.

The AECL’s proposed new standards for “free range” eggs is seeking to extend the maximum number of birds per hectare from 1,500 to 20,000, but a spokesperson for the AECL told Australian Food News, “Stocking densities of up to two birds per metre square provide hens with the ability to display all their natural behaviours. They can roam, scratch in the dirt and peck at grass, while having access to food, water and shelter in the henhouse.

The AECL spokesperson said, “AECL is working to improve the current situation by establishing a cap on free range stocking densities. There is currently no cap on free range stocking densities. This is unacceptable. We believe these changes would be a substantial improvement on the current situation.

“We seek this to be legislated and enforced by government. The egg industry needs to feed a growing population with an affordable source of quality protein. This is our industry’s social responsibility. We believe this definition will provide clarity, consistency and transparency.”

Free Range Farmers Association slams draft proposal

A statement published on the Free Range Farmers Association (FRFA) website today says that the AECL’s draft contains “unacceptable features such as allowing a ‘free range’ stocking density of up to 20,000 chickens per hectare”.

The FRFA statement declares, “The draft proposes that hens are allowed to be locked up until five weeks after the start of lay – which would generally mean they are locked in sheds until around 25 – 26 weeks old by which time they would be conditioned to life in a shed and would probably never venture outside (which of course is what the big operators want).”

In Australia, all egg producers must comply with “Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry”. Currently to be classified as ‘free range’, this Model Code stipulates that hens must be allowed access to range once they are fully feathered – around six weeks old.

The FRFA’s statement claims, “The Egg Corporation specifies that no other livestock (other than guardian dogs) must be allowed on the range area with the chooks.”

The FRFA is concerned that this will also proclude the free range chickens of their members being able to range in fields or paddocks with their cattle or sheep. The FRFA says this is a ‘nonsense’ because dogs do not always guard free range chickens, and animals such as alpacas and donkeys.

The FRFA said,”We are not aware of any significant disease control issues with running cattle and sheep in the same paddock as chooks. Many farms rotationally graze and problems have not emerged.

“If they want an intensive standard like this call it something else – ‘Cage Free’ perhaps. But leave the term ‘free range’ alone for the genuine free range farmers.”

Chickens crossing the road, heading for collision?

By its proposal to broaden the definition of ‘free range’, the AECL has clearly set a cat amongst the pigeons. Producers who consider themselves to fall within a stricter definition of ‘free range’ may feel threatened by the prospect of larger producers entering their marketing space