28 March 2012
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. 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. A lack of legislation and point of sale consumer information hasn't made this any clearer.
Here we demystify the egg production systems in no-nonsense terms to help you make truly informed choices.
|Cage||Barn laid||Certified free range1||Certified organic2|
|Are hens confined in cages?||YES||NO||NO||NO|
|Are hens provided with a nest/perch?||NO||YES||YES||YES|
|Do hens have space to flap their wings/exercise?||NO||YES (restricted)3||YES||YES|
|Do hens have access to an outdoor range?||NO||NO||YES||YES|
|Are hens 'debeaked'?||YES||YES||MAYBE
(depends on certification body)1
|Are male chicks killed at birth?4||YES||YES||YES||YES|
|Are hens sent to slaughter from 18 months old?4||YES||YES||YES||YES|
Making sense of labels
1 'Free Range'
Unfortunately, there is no legal definition of the term free range in Australia so standards between free range egg farms can vary dramatically. Humane Choice has compiled this useful checklist to help identify true free range labels. The biggest difference between free range farms is the number of birds kept in a certain space. While 1,500 birds per hectare is the recommended maximum, this is not enforceable and large scale producers are keeping their hens at much higher densities to cash in on the growing market for free range products. Queensland is the only state that has legislated a maximum of 1,500 hens per hectare. These logos on the egg carton indicate the eggs have come from hens raised on a true free range farm.
* Note: The RSPCA logo alone does not guarantee free range — you may also find the RSPCA logo on barn-laid eggs (see below). Only cartons that are also labelled 'free range' contain RSPCA approved eggs from a true free range system.
Certified organic eggs come from hens kept on farms which meet and exceed standards of the best free range facilities. However, simply the word 'organic' on an egg carton can sometimes mislead people to think the welfare of hens meets certified organic standards — when it may merely mean that hens in barns are fed organic grains. These logos on the egg carton indicate that the hens are raised on a certified organic farm.
3 'Barn Laid'
Hens in barn laid housing systems are not confined in cages so in theory they can move around. However, high stocking densities restrict hens' ability to move freely and exercise. Being confined indoors restricts hens' ability to perform the normal behaviours that provide quality of life.
The RSPCA Approved system accredits egg farms to RSPCA standards. Barn laid eggs can be RSPCA Approved, therefore not all RSPCA Approved hens have access to an outdoor area. 'Debeaking' of hens is not prohibited under the RSPCA's system.
Other claims on egg cartons
There are many other marketing terms used on egg cartons to imply higher welfare. These labels should be read discerningly. Terms such as 'Vegetarian', 'Eco eggs' and 'Omega 3 eggs' for example are not recognised descriptors that define the type of housing system or a level of welfare for hens. The term 'Cage-free' is also regularly used but it is important to note that these hens are raised in barns and do not have access to the outdoors. Likewise, don't be fooled by clever imagery — some cartons may depict birds sitting on nests, or green rolling fields, but unless accompanied by an accreditation label, these images are most likely to be inaccurate.
4 Ethical concerns in all egg laying systems
It is important that consumers are aware that there are ethical and welfare issues common to all egg production systems — including free-range and organic.
All egg systems are faced with a universal 'problem' when it comes to the hatching of chicks raised for egg laying. Since only female chickens lay eggs, male chicks who have no commercial value to the egg industry are routinely gassed or 'macerated' (ground up alive). As a result, every year some 12 million male chicks are killed in the first day of their lives as waste products of the Australian egg industry.
Another common concern is the slaughter of layer hens years short of their natural life span. Hens will naturally live for around 10 years, but most layer hens in Australia are sent to slaughter as soon as they exceed their productive 'use by date'. In all egg production systems, from cage to free range, hens are considered 'spent' from just 18 months old. Occasionally however, if it's deemed commercially viable, hens in free-range systems will be kept on for another season which would extend their life for around 12 months — still well short of what nature intended.
Alternatives to eggs
As consumers become aware of the ethical issues relating to all egg laying systems, more and more are choosing egg replacement products which are readily available in supermarkets.