Thursday, November 11, 2021

What freerange means


We still get heaps a questions from people asking what freerange actually means. They often say “We only buy freerange eggs.” When they further say that their eggs are from a major supermarket they are less than happy when I tell them that the eggs are almost certainly not freerange – they are simply labelled that way to rip off customers. The reality is that only intensive producers with many thousands of hens in sheds have enough eggs available to meet supermarket delivery requirements. Even big producers are forced to buy eggs from others businesses to keep up supplies. Eggs are trucked around the country to be stamped and packaged in many different locations and with different labels –  claiming to be freerange.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission tried to fix the problem by taking various firms to the Federal Court for deceptive conduct. The ACCC says“use of the descriptor ‘free range’ requires, at least, that the hens are able to move about freely on an open range on most days, and that most of the hens do so. the ACCC rejects claims by some that it is OK to tell consumers that the eggs are from free range hens when the outdoor range is not regularly used and the farming practices mean that the hens stay indoors all or most of the time. Some of those hens never leave the sheds.

Producers do not have to use the label ‘free range’. Producers choose to describe their eggs as free range to promote their products and obtain higher prices as consumers are generally willing to pay a premium for free range eggs. Unfortunately, after heavy lobbying by the corporate industry, politicians stepped in to protect intensive egg producers by allowing a high density code.

Academic researchers often produce theories and reports designed to demonstrate what 'free range' means in the egg industry. Celebrity chefs usually confine themselves to mistaken comments that bright yolk colour defines whether or not an egg is free range. Yolk colour varies, depending on the hen’s diet. If the yolk colour is always a bright, golden almost orange colour, the hens have almost certainly been fed colouring additives. Academic findings are usually based on carefully arranged criteria set by an organisation which funded the research and expects specific outcomes. Far better to rely on the experience of those in the industry actually running free range egg farms. Some people are fixated on the issue of animal welfare and they lose sight of matters like food safety and land sustainability. Outdoor stocking density is a key example. Academics found it easy to come up with results from research on small scale or short term projects to demonstrate that stocking densities had little or no impact on hen welfare. But it has been impossible for them to demonstrate that high densities have no detrimental impact on pasture quality, pollution of waterways, groundwater and the long term productivity of the land as a result of excessive nutrient loads. The maximum sustainable stocking density for poultry has been established at 1500 hens per hectare to minimise land degredation and ensure the long-term viability of the land.

Laying hens, like most if not all other animals, perform best when they are able to follow their natural behaviour. They clearly need shelter, food and water but they also need to wander around freely to forage, scratch, dust bathe and interact socially with others in the flock.

There is growing evidence that eggs from hens raised on pasture have nutritional benefits over the factory farm versions.

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