Making sense of egg labels

How much do labels really tell you about how eggs are produced?

LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2020

Most eggs produced in Australia today are still laid by hens confined in battery cages — some 12 million birds every year. Most of these eggs are used in food products like sauces, pasta and cakes. The rest end up in egg cartons on a supermarket shelf.

It's not easy to understand what the various logos and terms on packaging mean for the animals who laid the eggs. Below we have attempted to demystify egg production systems in no-nonsense terms to help you make truly informed and kinder choices.

Standards and certification systems included in the table:

  • Industry standard outlined in the Model of Code Practice (MCoP)
  • RSPCA Approved Farming (RSPCA)
  • Free Range Egg Producers Australia (FREPA)
  • Coles own brand specifications
  • Woolworths own brand specifications
  • Humane Choice (a free-range accreditation program from the Humane Society International Australia — Human Choice True Free Range)
  • Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
1
RSPCA Approved Farming standards do not require that birds have access to an outdoor area unless the laying facility does not provide litter indoors or a veranda. Therefore, the RSPCA Approved logo can be used on eggs from barn laid and free-range systems.
2
As a result of the National Information Standard on free range eggs, which came into effect in April 2018, farmers can keep up to 10,000 hens per hectare and still label their eggs as 'free range'. This is much higher than the 1,500 hens per hectare stocking density specified for free range layer hens in the Model Code of Practice — Poultry. The outdoor stocking density must be prominently displayed on the packaging.
3
The minimum requirement of 1 nest box per 7 birds or 1m2 nest boxes per 120 birds is the same for the MCoP standards, RSPCA Approved standards and Humane Choice standards.
4
‘Debeaking’ or beak trimming involves lasering or cutting off the end of a hen’s beak in an attempt to limit the injuries caused by hens pecking each other when they inevitably become frustrated in their confined, densely packed living spaces. A chicken’s beak (as in all birds) is a complex sensory organ and they need it to make fine tactile discriminations — grasping and manipulating food, and in nesting, exploration, drinking and preening. A hot blade or infrared laser is usually used to perform the procedure and it is undertaken without the provision of any pain relief.
5
RSPCA Approved Farming standards allow beak-trimmed birds to be sourced as layers (i.e. permit the procedure to be performed using an infrared technique on day-old birds).
Are hens confined in cages?
Yes
No
No
No
No
No
No
No
Do hens have acecss to an outdoor range?
No
No
No
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
How much space to hens have outdoors?2
n/a
n/a
n/a
1,500 to 2,500 hens/hectare
Not specified
10,000 hens/hectare
1,500 hens/hectare
1,500 to 2,500 hens/hectare
Are hens provided with a nest and perch?3
No
Nests: yes
Perches: not always
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Do hens have space to flap their wings/exercise?
No
Limited
Limited
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Can hens have the sensitive tip of their beaks cut off?4
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes5
Yes
Yes
No
No
Are males chicks killed at birth?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Are hens sent to slaughter from 18 months old?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
At the slaughterhouse, can hens be 'live-shackled' — suspended upside down and dragged through electrified water?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes

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.

Chick maceration
Newly hatched chicks being sorted in a hatchery. The males will be separated from the females, and killed.

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.

Ultimately, all ‘spent’ hens will be trucked to the same slaughterhouses. From catching (de-population) to transport, to their eventual slaughter — this is a process that is fraught and frightening for the birds.

Alternatives to eggs

Current demand for eggs in Australia can only be met by factory farming — whether in a cage or confining birds in the thousands inside sheds for their entire lives. But this demand never would have existed if people knew the truth about how animals are being treated.

Refusing to buy cage eggs is an important first step to eliminating some of the worst cruelties inflicted on hens. But the entrenched egg farming practices detailed above will only be dismantled if caring consumers also make the choice to eat fewer or no eggs.

We didn’t create these systems, but we can change them. And what we eat is a powerful agent for change. As people become aware of the ethical issues relating to all egg laying systems, more and more are choosing plant-based alternatives to eggs that are readily available (in their own pantries or in most supermarkets).

Making sense of terms and labels

These are the logos and terms behind the certification schemes outlined in the above table. It’s not an exhaustive list of the brands behind egg products but instead a snapshot of some of the most common accreditation labels you’re likely to see in the supermarket.

'RSPCA Approved'

The RSPCA Approved farming system accredits egg farms to RSPCA standards. Barn laid eggs can be RSPCA Approved, therefore not all RSPCA Approved farms allow hens access to an outdoor area. The description 'barn laid', 'free range' or 'outdoor' on RSPCA Approved egg cartons will indicate if the hens had access to the outdoors or were confined indoors (barn laid).

RSPCA Approved

'Free Range'

Conditions in free range egg farms can vary dramatically. While smaller scale producers might stick to the 1,500 birds per hectare as the recommended maximum, regulations endorsed in 2018 allow farmers to keep hens at stocking density of up to 10,000 birds per hectare and still label their eggs as 'free range'. Check the egg carton for the stocking density which must be clearly printed.

Along with RSPCA Approved free range eggs, these are two logos which indicate that the eggs have come from hens raised on a true free range farm.

Free range egg labels

'Certified Organic'

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 are the same logos which indicate that the hens are raised on a certified organic farm.

Certified organic egg labels

'Barn Laid' or 'Cage Free'

Hens in barn laid housing systems are not confined in cages so they can move around. However, high stocking densities can restrict their ability to move freely and exercise. Being confined indoors also restricts their freedom to perform natural behaviours that provide quality of life. Barn laid eggs may also be labelled as 'cage free'.

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.

For information about labelling on other animal products, see our range of handy guides.

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