There is some contention in Australia over what is exactly a ‘free range’ chicken. The US has decided to avoid the issue by ignoring labelling standards altogether. The EU (European Union) with all of its bureaucracy has defined four labels: 0-organic, 1-free range, 2-barn and 3-caged.
For free range eggs the chicken density is set at 2500 hens per hectare which translates to four square metres per hen. A rule of thumb standard is to reduce the hen density per hectare until the need for de-beaking hens to prevent cannibalism is no longer required. Does this give more meaning to the term ‘pecking order’?
The Australian Poultry Code in 2001 set a standard for free range hens of 1500 birds per hectare. Under pressure from the major egg producers the Australian Egg Corporation has requested a change to 20,000 per hectare which is eight times the EU standard or 2 hens per square metre. For caged birds, the current minimum floor space requirement is 550 square cm per hen in cages with three or more birds where the hens weigh less than 2.4kg and where cages were installed after January 2001. For those installed prior to this date the requirement is 450 square cm which is smaller than the hen. The EU now requires 750 square cm with a height of 45cm.
When we buy free range eggs do we buy because we think the flavour and nutritional value are better or do we think that battery hens are a cruel way of producing eggs?
Unfortunately if you buy from the big egg producers there is no real difference between cage eggs, barn eggs, and free range eggs in either taste or the hens overcrowded living conditions except that ‘barn’ and ‘free range’ are not caged. The ‘free range’ is often a barren yard so that the eggs can be found easily, and the chickens have hardly more room to move than a cage bird, with no protection from the pecking order. The big producers have a bigger profit margin on so called free range eggs compared to cage eggs. If your only motive is to free the hens from cages then ‘barn’ eggs are the best choice.
Free range egg buyers are in the same predicament as fresh orange juice buyers, you need to find a reliable source and stick with it. Once you find the reliable source the eggs will taste different and the yolks will be different shades of yellow, not all the same colour. Yes you will pay extra because proper free range farming is labour intensive.
It has been alleged that some egg producers that have caged and free range hens have been labelling caged eggs as free range eggs. The allegations were made when it was discovered that the number of free range eggs sold exceeded the laying capacity of the free range hens by a large margin. There is also evidence that bulk egg producers have lied about the hen density per hectare by a large margin.
Here are a few free range egg websites (see comments below), check out the hen cams:
Freeranger Traditional Free Range Eggs
Manning Valley Free Range Eggs
Jumbo Free Range Eggs
Natures Best Free Range Eggs
Ethical Consumer Guide