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The true meaning of free range

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Wednesday, 9 November 2011


Quite a few people buy free range and barn laid eggs, either routinely or from time to time. Some believe (wrongly) they are getting a more nutritious product or some other health benefit. A few think they are somehow saving the world. And of course many feel it just sounds more humane and gentle.

Whatever the reasons, the industry has responded by supplying eggs labelled as free range or barn laid, generally at a price premium. But some people think there is a problem due to what they regard as a discrepancy between what the egg industry says these terms mean and what consumers think they mean.

In NSW a bill will shortly be passed in the upper house of state parliament which would make it an offence to advertise, package or label eggs as free range or barn laid unless they had been produced under specified conditions. Eggs not meeting the criteria would be labelled as cage eggs (whether the hens were kept in cages or not) and words or images suggesting they were not kept in cages would be prohibited.

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The bill has prompted a fierce debate about the meaning of free range, particularly the density of hens in the outdoor areas to which they have access during the day.

The bill specified 750 birds per hectare of outdoor space plus a maximum of six birds per square metre in the shed in which they are confined at night. An amendment increased this to 1500 per hectare to make it consistent with the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals for domestic poultry (although the Code allows much higher densities when the birds are rotated on to fresh range.)

The RSPCA accepts 1500 per hectare plus nine per square metre indoors, and the Free Range Egg and Poultry association approves 1500 plus 10 per square metre in sheds up to 1000 birds and six over 4000.

If this all sounds like furious agreement, it does not reflect reality. This became obvious when the Australian Egg Corporation, which represents most egg farmers, released a draft standard which would allow free-range egg farms to run up to 20000 hens per hectare.

The Corporation based its figure on consumer research using images of hen density, which found the public was pretty comfortable with levels in the range of 10-20,000. It also has scientific data showing hens cope quite well at densities up to that level.

It pointed out that implementing the density levels in the draft bill would increase the price of free range eggs to $15 per dozen. Even adopting the Corporation's proposed 20000 hens per hectare would increase the price by 50 cents, reflecting the fact that current densities are sometimes higher.

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So if opinion research shows consumers are generally comfortable with 20000 hens per hectare as a reasonable definition of free range, why the drastic reduction proposed in the NSW bill?

The explanation is found in Hansard, the transcript of parliamentary debates. It is obvious from this that the underlying motivation for the bill was not to align consumer and egg industry perceptions, but to promote an animal rights agenda.

The bill was presented by the NSW Greens as part of a campaign against high volume livestock production. Not only did it specify densities, it prescribed available shade, shelter and vegetation in an outdoor enclosure; said exposure to natural sunlight and/or artificial light should not exceed 16 hours in any 24-hour period; nominated availability of natural food; and prohibited various management practices including break trimming.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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