How many chooks in a crowd?

The images conjured up by the expression “free range eggs” is of a flock of chooks ranging freely across a paddock, scratching in the dirt, indulging in a dust bath and generally fossicking about with plenty of space to perch and enjoy the sunshine.

The reality can be quite different and the adoption last year of a Federal Government definition of free range for use by egg producers has done little to clear up the confusion of exactly what consumers are buying when they pay top dollar for their free range eggs. Officially a crowd of chooks are free range if they number one per square metre of outdoor space. This is too crowded say many small egg producers, consumer and animal welfare groups. Instead a maximum stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare has been mandated for many years in voluntary codes of practice recognised by free range accreditation associations.

In March 2016 the Federal Government, despite strong opposition from consumer and animal rights groups, announced an agreement about what constitutes an enforceable definition of free range. The model code of practice stipulates that hens must have “meaningful and regular” access to the outdoors, and that the density of chickens in the outdoors must be no more than 10,000 hens per hectare (one hen per square metre). Egg producers are also required to publish their outdoor stocking density on egg cartons. Many egg producers welcomed the definition as providing consumers with assurances and streamlined labelling standards.

However, since then the controversy has continued unabated. This definition was seen as a win for big egg producers with Choice magazine and the RSPCA pointing out that there is no actual obligation for hens to spend time outdoors, thus the number of chooks in a crowd is irrelevant and allows the term free range to continue to be appropriated and misused.

Many free range accreditation bodies in different states adhere to between 750 to 1,500 hens per hectare stocking density criteria with additional standards that vary from regulations that ban beak trimming and clipping to providing adequate shelter, minimum of hours of daylight and darkness without artificial light.

However, the official definition is overwhelmingly rejected by small egg producers as being unsustainable for the land, and consumer and animal welfare groups are calling for more prescriptive standards. Egg producers can voluntarily join various accreditation associations in different states that enables producers to use the accreditation logo on their products.

One way to ensure that the clutch of eggs in the carton you are purchasing meet your idea of free range is to shop at the local farmers’ market and meet the men and women who are putting the welfare of their chickens and the sustainability of their land before their eggs. At Harvest Launceston Community Farmers’ Market, free range egg producers at Mt Roland place a premium on keeping their hens happy and their land in peak condition. View this video to see how they manage their chooks.

Mt Roland Free Range Eggs from Harvest Launceston on Vimeo.