Free-Range Eggs

Posted by Hon. Ian Hunter, M.L.C., Labor Member of Parliament, Adelaide, Australia on September 8, 2010

ALDF founder Joyce Tischler had the priviledge of meeting The Hon. Ian Hunter, M.L.C., Labor Member of Parliament, Adelaide, Australia during the 2010 Animal Law Lecture Series with Voiceless, the animal protection institute. This post was reprinted with his permission.

Joyce with The Honorable Ian HunterI rise today to speak about free-range eggs, and I congratulate Woolworths on its recent announcement that it will decrease the number of cage-laid eggs it stocks while increasing the range of free-range eggs available on its shelves. I should note that Coles supermarkets have also undertaken this course of action.

Those of you who know me know that I am not a food radical, but I believe that we can and should treat all animals–even those whose fate it is to end up on our dinner tables–with dignity and respect. To me, caged eggs are an inhumane and cruel farming practice, and I believe that public pressure and consumer preference will see this practice become more and more unacceptable.

Three types of eggs are currently available to consumers: cage laid, barn laid, and free-range. Cage birds are housed continuously in cages in sheds, with 550 square centimetres the minimum allowed for each bird. That is about the size of an A4 sheet of paper per chicken for life. These chooks (chicks) never see the outside world; they are born inside and they die inside. They do not know the feeling of sunlight on their feathers or the feeling of a dust bath. It is a pitiful existence. Barn birds have a slightly better life. They, too, are not allowed outside, but they are free to roam within the shed. The minimum space they are allowed is 14 birds per square metre.

At present there are no legislative requirements for the proper definition of free-range eggs, but industry bodies have created their own standards. The Egg Corporation’s definition has the chooks housed in a shed with access to an outdoor range–although one can question how free that access actually is. There are 14 birds per square metre allowed indoors and 1,500 birds per hectare permitted outdoors; however, with this definition of free-range, and with both cage and barn birds, beak trimming is permitted, as is forced moulting, which is achieved by withholding food and water from the bird for up to 24 hours.

In contrast, the definition of free-range used by producers who are linked with the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia permits neither beak trimming nor forced moulting. Under these guidelines, birds are given unrestricted access to a free-range run during daylight hours and are cooped at night to keep them from predators. Only seven birds per square metre are permitted indoors, with a maximum of 750 birds per hectare allowed outside.
A life cooped up in a cage from birth to death is no life at all, and one in a barn is not a whole lot better. These birds face a miserable existence, used as living, breathing, feeling, egg-laying machines. I stopped buying cage-laid and barn-laid eggs many years ago, and I am pleased that consumer demand for free-range eggs is increasing, forcing producers to look to more humane ways to produce their eggs and leading to an increase in free-range eggs being available in our stores. However, I believe it is time we looked to some sort of proper regulations so that consumers can be confident that when they choose free-range eggs they are actually getting what they pay for, and so that we can ensure that all free-range chickens enjoy a happy and healthy life.

I also think it is time we looked at phasing out the practice of battery egg farming, although I will accept better labelling of free-range eggs as a starting measure. I am just as keen about consumer protection as I am about animal protection; consumers have the right to get what they are paying for. Without going into specifics–because I understand that they are in dispute–there are concerns that not all eggs labelled free-range are actually free-range. I understand that more free-range eggs are sold in the state than are actually produced.

As a side issue, many producers use ambiguous terminology on their packaging so that shoppers looking to make ethical choices are duped into buying caged eggs. This practice is reprehensible. Introducing regulated and transparent labelling in South Australia would greatly benefit this state’s consumers, and there are slow steps being taken around the world. New Zealand does not have labelling practices legislated, but the big egg producers have voluntarily introduced a labelling scheme that allows consumers to know the practices involved in the production of the eggs, and the European Union has had mandatory labelling of eggs to distinguish the farming practices used since January 2004, with the terms ‘free-range eggs’ and ‘barn eggs’ defined in legislation.

Animals are voiceless, and it is important that we rise to speak on their behalf. Consumers are voting with their wallets, telling us that current egg farming practices in Australia need to become more humane. The egg industry has been put on notice to clean up its act, not by government but by the buying public, their consumers. We are sending a very clear message to egg producers about what we want, and it will be the smart egg producers responding to consumer demand who will reap the rewards.

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