You’re standing in the egg aisle in the grocery store. In your hands, you’re holding two different egg cartons. Both are emblazoned with bright colors. Both are stamped with images of happy chickens. Both promise to be better for hens, humans, and habitats.
The only difference? One claims to have free-range eggs and one claims to have cage-free eggs. Deciding they both sound pretty good, you opt for the one with the cheaper price, put it in your cart, and walk away.
The problem? You may unintentionally have made a choice that works against chicken welfare.
If you’ve ever opted to support cage-free chickens, well, that would come to us as no surprise. Many members of the egg industry work pretty hard to make their products seem more chook-friendly than they actually are. It’s no wonder there still exists some confusion among consumers about whether the difference between free-range and cage-free really matters.
Today, we’re here to clear things up so that you can use your dollars to help create happy chickens now and in future.
A lot of providers here in Australia try to position themselves as ethical by saying they’re cage-free, when actually this doesn’t mean much. Cage-free is an unregulated term, meant to soothe consumers into thinking they’re buying much more humanely produced eggs than they actually are.
If you’ve been suckered with the picture of happy, bright-eyed chooks roaming green fields and singing with happiness…well, you’re not the first.
In reality, cage-free simply means chickens are not kept in individual cages. That begs the question, though, of whether an individual cage is the only kind there is.
Simply taking the cages out of a still-packed chicken barn — or making the cages larger so that each cage holds more than one animal — theoretically gives chickens more room to roam, but does it really improve their lives?
As Nellie’s Free Range Eggs points out, “That means packing millions of birds overcrowded factory facilities full of floor-to-ceiling aviary systems that are nearly as bad as those individual cages in terms of density.” But still, as with cage operations, “The birds never go outside, do not have adequate perch areas, or places to scratch in the dirt.”
PETA decries this method, saying, “Hens on both small- and large-scale commercial cage-free farms still have short, painful lives… They sustain painful lung lesions, breast blisters, and ammonia burns from sitting on unsanitary floors covered with urine and feces.” Worse, their beaks are cut off as chicks, and males chicks (for whom the industry has no use) are cruelly and painfully killed.
Moreover, due to their inability to move and their close proximity to the hens all around them, chickens are unable to express their instincts, including the following:
In summation, says the RSPCA, “Good welfare requires not only the absence of disease, hunger, and thirst, but also the opportunity for hens to perform behaviours which they are motivated to perform.”
If you’re rethinking cage-free, good on you. Now let’s talk about the only real choice: free-range.
Free-range, according to new regulations, is a label accorded only to eggs from hens that are housed in facilities with meaningful and regular access to outdoors, and a maximum stock density of 10,000 birds per hectare.
Unfortunately, though, even this new definition fails to guarantee that a “free-range” label will necessarily promote hen welfare.
Why? Because quality of outdoor is more important than quantity, and even chickens that can access the outdoors “freely” won’t get to express their essential chicken behaviors in a bare yard without stimulation, protected perching, and good forage. These are all critical elements of happy chicken lives, helping to lessen potential frustration and improve their health, as well as substantially increase the nutritional value of the eggs they produce.
But if we know you at all, you’re still reading this because you long to satisfy that vision in your head of singing chickens roaming green grasses. (Okay, so chooks don’t actually sing, but happy clucks sound a lot like singing to us.) The trouble is, the current definition of free-range may not actually lead to that vision.
See, 10,000 birds per hectare is a lot better, but it still means hens only get about a square metre to themselves. That’s a considerable amount of crowding, which restricts the hens’ ability to get space, form natural and healthy relationships, and get access to all the forage they could wish.
The consumer group Choice objects on the grounds that this is still too dense, while the RSPCA says new standards of “meaningful” aren’t quite meaningful enough: “The RSPCA believes free range hens should be stocked at a maximum rate of 1,500 hens per hectare or up to 2,500 if a regular rotation system is in place.”
If you’re championing free-range, both the letter and the spirit of it, then Happy Chicken Eggs would be just the product for you! Our RSPCA-approved free-range chickens are free to roam all day, dust-bathe, perch outdoors, engage in social bonding, and play to their heart’s content.
Sound like some ladies you’d like to support? We welcome you to our happy family and invite you to get in touch any time to learn more!
In recent years, the phrase “free-range” almost seems to mean “All good to go here, folks!”
But there’s just one teeny bit of problem with that.
While free-range eggs, for example, do follow much higher standards than cage or barn eggs, earning a label doesn’t necessarily mean an egg purveyor respects the highest good. Not when it comes to chicken welfare. Not when it comes to the environment. And not when it comes to your family’s nutrition.
As Make It Possible points out, “There is no doubt that consumer awareness and concern about the lives led by animals raised for food is on the rise. Ethical concerns are playing an increasingly important role in purchasing decisions.”
Which is wonderful, except for their follow-up point: “It seems that egg producers — perhaps more than any other — have responded to this trend by adding an abundance of confusing claims on egg cartons.”
That doesn’t help you make the right decisions, does it? If anything, it confuses the issue further as consumers can’t tell whether or not manufacturers actually meet ethical guidelines such as those set out by the RSPCA.
If you’re right there with other consumers who want to make the ethical choice but aren’t sure how, don’t feel bad. Labeling laws can be vague and confusing, and even recent efforts to create much clearer standards may not bring the changes we all hope for. Let’s take these issues and address them one at a time so you can learn more and know where to get healthy eggs from happy free-range hens.
Let’s start with the definition of free-range, which just this year got a major makeover. According to ABC News, the new definition free-range eggs come from hens that have “meaningful and regular access” to an outdoor area with room enough to roam and forage, at a maximum density of 10,000 hens per hectare — the equivalent of one chook per square metre.
Admittedly, this definition is better than the current definition in the United States, where free-range simply means access to the outdoors. As in…there is a door somewhere. And sometimes chickens go through it. To a yard of undetermined size and quality.
Given the tightly packed conditions of most barns, however, that option may not be much more meaningful than barn eggs (which are laid in an enclosed space without a door).
Even here in Australia, though, the definition doesn’t go beyond the relatively murky “meaningful and regular” and hen density standards, both of which are still too low and too unspecific for the RSPCA’s tastes.
While setting such standards for free-range chickens is certainly an improvement, the RSPCA believes these decrees are still too loose. Just as 28 percent of consumers don’t believe eggs labeled free-range would meet their expectations of free-range conditions, the RSPCA believes the label misleads consumers into thinking hen welfare in such conditions is better than it actually is.
For one thing, stocking density is still too high for hens to have a truly free experience. Instead of 10,000 hens per hectare, the RSPCA demands that free-range stocking capacity should be 1,500 or 2,500 with a rotation system. That means six times the amount of space each hen would get under the current definition or four times the amount as long as the operation rotated its hens frequently. Also, “meaningful” outdoor time requires protected outdoor areas and dustbathing pits so that chooks can do what chooks do and feel secure doing it.
What’s the difference? Simple:
Plus, such operations encourage the symbiotic relationship between animals and land. Instead of producing ammonia-heavy environments where waste becomes an issue, chicken waste nourishes grasses and forage year after year. Virtuous cycles rule, don’t they?
Here at Happy Chicken Eggs, we do more than produce a great-tasting egg for all your omelet, muffin, and soufflé needs. We also give laying hens the happiest possible existence, with robust attention to their physical, mental, and social needs. In other words, we are more than free-range, just as the RSPCA advises.
The reason we go above and beyond through hen play areas, dust baths, and more, not to mention nutrient-dense eggs that feed your family right is that we believe all animals have a right to joy. No species should have a corner on the market of waking up happy each morning, forming meaningful bonds with other members of the species, learning and roaming and enjoying all there is to experience in life.
In addition to being RSPCA approved, we also meet standards set by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Choice code of practice and customer expectations. INSERT ACTUAL CODE HERE (https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/eggs/articles/what-free-range-eggs-meet-the-model-code) Plus, we have 25 percent less hen density than other non-RSPCA approved farms, and we never debeak.
Overall? Well, we raise dang happy chickens who produce dang yummy eggs, with higher nutritive values for your fam, and we’re dang proud of it. If you ever want to learn more about how we work, please get in touch with us! We’d love to tell you more about our joyful little ladies today.