Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: Are free-range eggs all they're cracked up to be?

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Is the image of 'free-range' chickens frolicking in green pastures just a fantasy? Photo / Thinkstock
Is the image of 'free-range' chickens frolicking in green pastures just a fantasy? Photo / Thinkstock

I buy free-range eggs, mainly because I think the ethical treatment of animals is important, especially when it comes to food production.

The assortment of free-range eggs seems to have increased over the past few years, and a simple scan of the supermarket aisle provides many brands all proudly stamped with 'Free-Range'.

But is free-range all it's cracked up to be? The image I have of free-range hens is of a flock frolicking about in green pastures, coming inside at night to roost. The reality is starkly different.

Egg producers are currently able to claim that they are 'free-range' with no standards set to prove it.

In the early 1900s, half of Kiwis kept chickens to produce eggs and animal welfare has long been a concern: By 1910, alongside the rise of specialised mass-production (which was beginning to replace the home-reared eggs) came discussion in the Journal of Agriculture, which stated that 'The proper housing of fowls is one of the most discussed questions of the day.

... The old, closed in and ill ventilated house must go.'

Today, SAFE says that 8 out of 10 kiwis want to see battery farming banned, yet the new regulations (the Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Regulation) which came into force in December last year have failed in this regard.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has made the move to ban the current 'standard' or 'battery' cages by 2023, but have allowed 'colony' farming - another type of cage. SAFE says that in 'colony' cages, hens will still be living on a space little more than the size of an A4 piece of paper which seems very small indeed.

These days New Zealand produces over one billion eggs, most of which are consumed locally. Free-range farms supply 9.7% of eggs in New Zealand and a relatively small group of 47 farmers produce all of the cage-laid eggs.

So how can you be sure that your poachies come from happy hens?

Some egg brands give the impression they're "approved" or "certified" by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA). This is simply greenwash as the NZFSA doesn't approve or certify any eggs.

The claim of 'free-range' does not necessarily mean that the hens have been subject to any special treatment whatsoever as it is not attached to any standards - a conniving battery farmer could claim this without necessarily breaking the law.

In an effort to quell the concerns of consumers, some brands have even invented their own standards, but they are not independently verified by any third party.

If you want to be sure about the welfare of your eggs, then look for organic eggs with either an 'AsureQuality Organic' or 'BioGro' certification. This independent standard ensures that hens have outdoor access, limits flock size to 2,000 hens and does not allow their beaks to be trimmed (which stops them eating each other when stressed) or hen-food to be dyed so that egg yolks come out looking healthy.

Even the SPCA tick allows for beak-trimming and food dying and sets a much higher threshold for flock size at 4,000 hens. Is this saying that it is okay to stress these animals to the point that they become cannibals?

While clearly it won't be feasible for everyone, maybe the best solution is to get a few chickens for the back yard. That way you will know for sure that they are truly free-range.

The Auckland Council bylaws allow you to keep up to 6 hens (so long as you follow their minimum standards) and the average production is one egg per day. This would save you the worry of searching for dubious standards and the cost of knowing that your breakfast comes from happy hens.

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