What does “free range” mean in eggs?
No defined industry standard for Free Range
There is currently no standard government definition of what free range means in terms of egg production in layer hens. Nor do the labelling requirements within the Food Standards Code (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) address the type of production system where eggs are laid.
However, the New Zealand Fair Trading Act 1986 prohibits the use of any false, misleading or deceptive claims, or other representations. In addition, The Code of Welfare for Layer Hens (2018), developed under the Animal Welfare Act sets minimum standards for the care and management of layer hens in cages, colony cages and barns - with or without access to an outdoor area.
Within the Code of Welfare, free range layer production is described as a “barn with access to the outdoors”. There are a number of Minimum Standards relating to the care of layer hens and what hens should have. However, just providing access to an outdoor area does not necessarily mean that the hens use the range well, or go outside as often as they could. Whether hens range outside depends on a number of factors, including the availability and type of shelter outside, a hens own innate fear of overhead predators, such as hawks (this is where overhead shelter is effective), early outdoor experience, pop-hole availability, as well as season and weather conditions, amongst other factors.
The key difference with free range is the access to an outdoor range. The shed or shelter the hens live in may be fixed or portable. In both cases, barn and free range, sheds are generally fitted with the same equipment, including nest boxes and perches, and friable litter on the floor for dust-bathing and scratching inside. Access to the outdoors is given through pop-holes placed along the shed walls for outdoor range access. Where pop-holes provide an outlook that is attractive to the hens, this can help encourage hens out onto the range, allowing them to actively explore their environment.
Most importantly, terms such as 'free range’ or ‘free to roam’ do not always provide assurance of good animal welfare. Always look for an independent trusted third party certification on the product label, such as the SPCA Certified, AsureQuality or BioGro logos, amongst others.
Farmers and producers can be independently audited through a number of certification programmes, such as SPCA Certified. Certification programmes will have their own standards to which farms are audited. Auditing may also be independent, announced and unannounced, depending on requirements of the programme. Standards can and may differ between certification programmes. For example, the size of the outdoor range required, and the amount of time hens are given access to the range may differ between different standards.
Gaining certification through the SPCA Certified programme tells the consumer that the certified farms have been independently audited, and meet the respective requirements set within the SPCA Certified standards for free range and barn layer hens. All SPCA Certified branded eggs come from barn and free range farms that are approved and independently audited according to the SPCA Certified animal welfare standards. By buying eggs from those farmers that are independently audited for animal welfare, you can ensure that the eggs you are buying are from farms that follow best practice guidelines and standards, and care about the welfare of their hens.
What are the different egg production systems and how can I make an informed decision?
Caged eggs come from hens that live in either battery cages or colony cages.
In battery cages, layer hens are confined in small cages for the duration of their lives, where there is insufficient room to perform natural behaviours, such as stretching, foraging and dust bathing, and the space provided per hen is about the size of an A4 piece of paper. This style of production only provides for a hen’s very basic requirements of feed and water.
Colony cages are a marginal improvement on conventional cages, as they provide slightly more space (minimum 750 cm2 per hen), are equipped with nest areas, and have limited perch space and a scratch area.
However, the SPCA consider both cage systems to be inappropriate to a hen's requirements, in that they are unable to provide for a hen’s full repertoire of behavioural and physical wants and needs. The Code of Welfare for Layer Hens (2018) now states that conventional cages are to be phased out by Jan 2022. Furthermore, major supermarket chains have also announced plans to phase out the sale of all caged eggs, including colony cage eggs by 2027.
Cage-free is a broad term and includes barn production systems, as well as free-range production systems. In a barn system, hens roam freely inside (uncaged), have perches to roost on and space to stretch their wings, thereby providing for behavioural needs. Nesting boxes also provide a quiet space to lay their eggs, and the floor is covered in floor litter that provides the hens with opportunities to scratch, forage and dust bathe.
The SPCA Certified accreditation approves both barn and free range production systems after initial assessment by an SPCA representative, and after independent auditing conducted by a third party.
If you are interested in learning more about the specific standards of individual certification bodies, you can download a copy on the organisation’s website. We have provided some links below.
Good questions to ask
- What is the stocking density on the farm?
- What kind of conditions do the hens live in?
- How many hens are there per square metre outside?
- What access do the hens have to the outdoors?
- What type of shelter do the hens have outside on the range?
- Are the farms regularly audited?
- Who conducts the audits?