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Understanding free-range eggs in Australia

Read our buying guide on everything you need to know about what free-range actually means.

Updated

We've all had that moment when we are in the egg aisle in the supermarket and feel a little overwhelmed. Do you choose cage eggs, cage-free eggs, organic eggs, barn-laid eggs or free-range eggs? If you are leaning more towards, or are interested in, buying and understanding free-range eggs, then this is the guide for you.


Image: Getty


What is free-range?

Free range is defined by the amount of freedom that chickens have to move around and to be outdoors. But how is this calculated? Well, by the stocking density. And the stocking density refers to the number of hens per hectare.

As of 2017, the Australian Government finalised a law deciding that free range means 10,000 hens are allowed per hectare of outdoor grazing areas. But, it makes no mention of the birds spending any time outdoors – which some suggest is where the Australian law is lacking. Any farm or brand that complies with this law can use the free-range label on its packaging.

For some consumers and farmers who consider and believe in the importance of animal welfare, this standard may not be enough. As a result, many free-range suppliers abide by another set of rules – The Australian Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry. This is a voluntary national guide by CSIRO. It states that the maximum number of hens should be 1,500 per hectare of outdoor space. The birds should have access to daylight hours, a safe place to lay their eggs and enough room to spread their wings with ease.

Animal welfare association, the RSPCA, has also weighed in on the free-range debate. This organisation's recommendation, while still much lower than the actual law, is slightly higher than the CSIRO standard. The RSPCA believes that 2,500 hens per hectare is appropriate as long as they are on a rotational system and have reasonable access to daylight, food, water and a place to lay.

While the Australian law gives an outline of what officially defines free range, there are still different interpretations of free range in the farming industry. Many Australian farmers will choose the CSIRO standard and will farm 1,500 hens per square metre (or some choose even smaller densities).

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What to look for when choosing free-range eggs and understanding stocking density

A hectare is a space of 100 metres by 100 metres or 10,000 square metres. So the difference in stocking density recommendation between Australian law and CSIRO's model code of practice is vast.

  • Australian law: 10,000 hens per hectare

One hen per one square metre

  • CSIRO model code of practice: 1,500 hens per hectare

One hen per approximately 6.6 square metres


Why free-range eggs are better

It's worth noting that free-range eggs are not organic, though sometimes people may confuse the two. Even though free range does not mean organic, they are still better for some people.

Free-range farmers prioritise the welfare of animals so that the animals are able to thrive in a spacious and comfortable environment. Some people may feel unhappy or uncomfortable about the treatment of hens on a caged egg farm. Many videos have circled the Internet such as this one from "mercyforanimals" that shows unsettling images of birds confined into small cages.

These non-free-range farms are called "battery farms" and according to Voiceless.org.au, each hen can be allocated a space equivalent to less than an A4 size piece of paper.

RSPCA has deemed this as animal cruelty. Buying free-range eggs ensures that you're not supporting the unethical treatment of hens in egg farms. So for many, free range is definitely better.

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Knowing the types of eggs available

  • Caged: Also known as battery cages, the hens are kept in a small cage. This is thought to be the worst type in regards to the treatment of animals.
  • Free-range: This follows the guideline of 10,000 hens per hectare. Hens are given time in the daylight and have access to food, water and a space for nesting.
  • Organic: Treated like free-range but the hens are fed food free from chemicals, antibiotics, and growth-promoting substances or synthetics.
  • Barn-laid: Hens are kept in a barn with adequate water, food and nesting areas.

Are free-range eggs more expensive?

Generally yes, but it's not by much. And you are paying a little bit more with an understanding of the importance of free range and love for animal welfare.

Let's compare with eggs from a brand called Pace Farm. They supply both cage eggs and free-range eggs, and here are the stats.

  • Fresh Jumbo Cage Eggs 12 pack 800g: $5.00 or $0.63 per 100g
  • Natural Living Extra Large Free Range Eggs 12 pack 800g: $7.00 or $0.88 per 100g
So yes, you are paying more, but not too much more.

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Which eggs are really free range?

In Australia, if a carton of eggs is labelled as free range, then the stocking density needs to be labelled clearly on the packaging. So if you can't see that number, it's likely that it may not actually be free range.

Farms and brands change their products and supplies all the time. So offering a list of free-range brands would not be entirely accurate, especially since some brands offer both caged and free-range eggs.

Knowing which eggs are free range will rely on you reading the packaging. Look for "free range" on the box and then look for stocking densities of 10,000 hens per hectare of less. If you want eggs that comply with the CSIRO moral code, look out for 1,500 hens per hectare.

Some customers claim you can spot a free-range egg by the colour of the yolk. It's claimed to be more orange in colour due to the fact that the chickens are able to eat an abundance of greens and insects. This kind of diet allegedly produces a yolk that is rich in colour. Regardless, the best indication of whether an egg is free range is the official stocking density listed on the packaging.


Examples of brands with free-range eggs:

These are three brands that offer free-range eggs, so here are some packaging designs to look out for. But still, always read the packaging before buying!

Coles Organic Free-Range Eggs

organic eggs Image: Website

Sunny Queen Free-Range Eggs

extra large eggs Image: Getty

Lucky Chicken Free-Range Eggs

Happy Eggs Image: Getty

Hens per hectare: 1,500
Farm location: Australia
Is it organic: Yes

Hens per hectare: 1,500
Farm location: Australia
Is it organic: Yes

Hens per hectare: 1,500
Farm location: Victoria
Is it organic: Yes

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You can buy these right now:

Here are some examples of free-range eggs that you can buy right from your local supermarket. Since you don't need to search for the closest health food store, it can be incredibly easy and convenient to shop for free-range eggs.

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