Scandaleggs: When “Free Range” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

As a vegetarian-cum-vegan, industries based around livestock are something I’d like to advocate for. The egg industry is full of scandal. Egg-laying hens are excluded from protection against animal cruelty. In recent years, the caged egg industry has had several aspects exposed including but not limited to living their entire lives confined in cages, having parts of their beaks cut off without any pain relief. Despite being able to live a natural life of up to 10 years, a hens whose egg production slows (as early as 18 months old) is sent to slaughter. Male chicks in any part of the egg industry are routinely killed as “waste products” of the egg industry due to their inability to produce eggs.

In 2014, one of Western Australia’s largest egg producers, Snowdale Holdings, faced legal recourse on two fronts: charges of false-labelling of its free range eggs and substandard sanitary conditions at Carbooda egg farm. Because Snowdale allegedly squeezed “more than 100 times the recommended number of laying hens into its barns”, the farm produced waste in the form of thousands of chicken carcasses, discarded eggs and tonnes of manure (Bennett 2014).

On 31st March, consumer affairs ministers decided on a definition for “free range” egg labels. State, territory and federal ministers agreed on the following:

  • “Free-range” can mean eggs produced by hens stocked at up to 10, 00 berds per hectare, not the maximum 1,500 per hectare that the CSIRO Model Code recommends.
  • Egg cartons will have to display stocking densities
  • Hens should have “meaningful and regular” access to an outdoor range

Large-scale producers may have welcomed this decision however small businesses are disappointed. Fortunately for them, Choice has called for a consumer boycott of “the big producers who sell free range eggs from chickens kept in conditions that don’t meet the CSIRO’s Model Code” (Day 2016).

boycot

Choice’s boycott poster (Choice)

These developments are particularly confusing for consumers to respond to. On the one hand, we have finally acquired a nationwide standard for the label. This means companies can no longer apply the label as a means of increasing price with no real clarification for what it means for the animals in question, as Snowdale and other groups have been known for doing.

On the other hand, the number agreed upon is considerably more crowded than the CSIRO Model Code, supported by the RSPCA and Choice. This number will lead to overcrowding and inadequate supervision, making cannibalism and other problems much more likely realities. Their access to outdoors is not a requirement but a choice the hens must make. This conflicts with the consumer and welfare advocates who argue the label should apply to places where hens “range on pasture and where all hens are able to express natural behaviors such as foraging, pecking and dust bathing” (Parker, Scrinis & Carey 2016).

While multiple organisations still disagree over this label, animal welfare for egg-laying hens will still be a contentious subject in the media. Inadequate coverage in mainstream media means many consumers may not know about these changes or the ramifications  while still more consumers will be confused as to which definition is correct and which brands to purchase.


 

References:

Bennett, C 2014, ‘Dead chickens, dumped eggs in ‘free-range’ Swan Valley Farm horror, WA Today, 4 December, viewed 3 April 2016, <http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/dead-chickens-dumped-eggs-in-freerange-swan-valley-farm-horror-20141203-11zjkg.html&gt;.

Day, K 2016, ‘Still on the shelf’, Choice, 31 March, viewed 3 April, <https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/eggs/articles/choice-calls-for-bad-egg-boycott-310316&gt;.

Parker, C, Scrinis, G & Carey, R 2016, ‘Free-range egg labelling scrambles the message for consumers’, The Conversation, 1 April, viewed 3 April 2016, <http://theconversation.com/free-range-egg-labelling-scrambles-the-message-for-consumers-57060&gt;.

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One comment

  1. Hi , Thanks K. The whole matter shows that if you are a large industry able to donate to political parties then you can the legislation, or lack of it, that you want. Consumers want clear advice on the packaging. Consumers will have to vote with their feet.

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