Here’s What “Free-Range” Really Means for Laying Hens

14 Jun 2018

The food industry apparently gets a big kick out of confusing consumers, and nowhere is this more true than in egg labeling.

Okay, we know that nobody is intentionally making labels difficult to read (well, we hope they’re not, anyway). Yet the massive amounts of confusion regarding definitions of “free-range chickens” and “free-range eggs” in recent years make it pretty clear that people don’t quite know how to pick their eggs.

If you have ever stood motionless in your neighborhood grocery store whilst staring open-mouthed at the little marching rows of cartons, you know exactly what we mean. Just what the heck do all those words mean? And is anyone even taking them seriously?

As to the latter question, the answer is absolutely yes. As to the first, well, that’s a little harder to answer. Which is what we’re here for.


Historical Problems with “Free-Range”

Before now, egg producers have used the term “free-range” fairly loosely. The idea, inherent in the phrase, is that hens are kept in housing with ample room to move so that they can “range” where they will “freely”.

That’s pretty vague, though. For instance, in the United States, free-range only demands that hens have access to outdoors, the quality of which may vary from one operator to another. If there’s an open door somewhere in the giant warehouse-like barn, operators can stamp that label on their cartons…whether or not chooks can actually reach that door through the press of hen bodies that surround them at all times.

Australia hasn’t been much better in past, with definitions ranging according to organisation. Historically, the labeling laws have allowed for voluntary free-range accreditation standards, which are very different from the Australian Egg Corporation and the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia, for instance. This makes it hard for operators to know how to label their eggs, which can in turn mean they adopt labels that misrepresent hen treatment — all of which confuses consumers.


So Just What Is “Free-Range” Then?

Luckily, as of 2018, we now have a standard definition provided by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Consumer Affairs Ministers. In an eggshell, “free-range” means hens “have meaningful and regular access to the outdoors, with outdoor stocking of no more than one hen per square metre (maximum 10,000 hens per hectare).”

Additionally, “farmers of free range eggs will also be required to prominently disclose their outdoor stocking density of their hens, allowing consumers to easily choose their preference.”

But even with the new regulations in place, hen welfare is still not where it needs to be. According to the RSPCA: “There are approximately 16 million layer hens in Australia, 9 million of which are housed in battery cages.” These hens are tightly packed into airless barns, can’t gain that meaningful and regular access to sunshine and grass, and have no outdoor stimulation. This is not a place for happy chickens to thrive. It’s simply inhumane, and organisations big and small are not keeping quiet about it any longer.


The RSPCA Speaks Out

The stereotype of “dumb chickens” is more widespread than we like to think, with many people concluding that hens can’t really “tell” that their lives aren’t what we would consider meaningful or, indeed, worth living.

Yet studies have shown quite the opposite: They can tell, and they suffer just as you or I do from restricted movement, little exercise, failure to form social relationships, and lack of mental stimulation.

“Hens have a complex nervous system that includes a prodigious memory and the ability to make complex decisions,” explains the RSPCA. “Researchers who have studied the behaviour of hens are clear that battery cages can in no way meet the demands of such remarkable animals.”

Our thinking: If you wouldn’t make your dog or cat spend their entire life in a cage, why would you do it to a hen?

The RSPCA takes the same stance. RSCPA-approved eggs, therefore, are only free-range. Not only that, the RSPCA stamp of approval requires considerably lower hen density than the mandated 10,000 hens per hectare limit. Companies who have the RSPCA’s seal follow much stricter limits of 1,500 chooks per hectare, or 2,500 if the operators put a regular rotation system in place.

So why does free-range matter so much? Because hen welfare matters so much, so it’s incredibly important to support companies that give their chickens a healthy life.


Happy Chicken Eggs Is Here to Help

Luckily, you’re not without options. If you care about chicken welfare — and we sincerely hope you do — consider making Happy Chicken Eggs your go-to source for delicious eggs.

As we like to say, “Free-range is just the beginning.” We not only give our ladies room to roam, our chicken habitats also include clean and cozy nesting boxes, plenty of forage, dust bathing sandpits, play structures, and excellent perches on which they can sleep safely and soundly. Basically, our hens are just as entertained as your four-year-old would be. Pretty cool, right?

If you’d like to learn more about the definition of free-range eggs or how we take that definition approximately ten steps farther (give or take), we’d love to tell you more today. Please feel free to get in touch with us any time via our website.

In the meantime, happy eggs, from us to you!



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