NEW national standards governing free-range egg production will soon come into effect, with the aim of ensuring shoppers are getting what they pay for when buying eggs labelled ‘free range’.
But there are concerns other important aspects of free range egg production may be getting lost in a debate over stocking density.
Under the new standards, which come into effect in late April, egg producers cannot use the words ‘free range’ on their egg cartons unless the eggs were laid by hens that had “meaningful and regular” access to an outdoor range during the daylight hours of the laying cycle; were able to roam and forage on the outdoor range; and were subject to a stocking density of 10,000 hens or less per hectare.
This outdoor stocking density must be prominently displayed on packaging or signage.
Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Rod Sims says the new standards will give consumers confidence in the products they’re buying, and often paying a premium for.
But consumer advocacy group CHOICE has criticised the 10,000 hens per hectare limit, and continues to petition for the standard to be changed to 1,500 hens per hectare, based on a model code developed by the CSIRO.
With 400 hens per hectare (3000 hens in total, split into flocks of 200 in half hectare paddocks), Emma Brown’s Korumburra farm is well and truly compliant with the new standards, but Ms Brown says free range farming is not just about the numbers.
“People are getting stuck on numbers but there’s no magic number. You have to look at your land and what it can cope with – 400 per hectare is what works for me.
“Any more than that and the paddock would turn into a dustbowl. There would be no grass and you’d get a big build up of manure. Then you’ve got issues with soil alkalinity, erosion and run off into waterways.
“You’ve got to look outside the number and look at the environmental impacts. I’m not going to be here forever and I don’t want to wreck the top soil for future generations.”
Debeaking is another issue missing from the discussion, says Ms Brown. “It’s not just about space. The big producers like Coles and Woolworths can point to the 10,000 figure and say the hens have plenty of room to move, but the majority of these producers will still debeak their hens.
“And the reason they do that is because hens peck each other when they’re stressed and frustrated from being in a crowded environment.
“They never recover from that [debeaking]. It’s always painful and they can’t forage properly, they can’t eat fresh grain. But the big producers would rather keep debeaking than reduce the stocking rate.”
Ms Brown, who sells her ‘Glorious Googies’ eggs direct to customers and to selected small, independent retailers, says she feels for supermarket shoppers who, even with the new standards in place, may still be confused by labelling, especially if different brands display stocking density in different ways, such as birds per hectare or birds per metre.
“There’s free range and there’s ‘free range’. Under these new standards there can still be big differences in the sorts of conditions in which the eggs are produced.”
She says smaller free range flocks may mean more work and more expense for producers, but having happier, healthier hens makes it all worthwhile.
“Looking after the environment and making the business work can go hand in hand. We haven’t had any problems with disease and I think consumers, increasingly, appreciate the effort we put in.”