We recently heard Woolworths announce that they will be phasing out caged eggs both on their shelves and as an ingredient in their own brand products by December 2018. This sounds like exciting news for chickens, but let’s egg-xamine what this really means for chickens and consumers.
Firstly, Woolworths has only committed to phasing out their own brand of caged eggs, which means consumers will still have a large choice of other brand caged eggs as well as an extensive selection of Free-range, Barn laid, cage free, organic, eco, vegetarian, and other confusing and misleading labelled eggs, to choose from. So as far as consumer choice goes I don’t see one less inhumane option as an issue.
But what is the difference between Barn laid, Free-Ranged and caged anyway?
Surprize, Surprize, like most front of package labels in Australia they are poorly regulated, misleading and not to be believed.
Caged eggs come from chickens that live in nothing short of horrendous condition. The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry, specifying that multiple layer hens can be housed their entire, unnaturally short, life (at 18months they are sent to slaughter), in cages as small as 550cm2. Within these cages they literally eat, shit, sleep and lay where they stand (if they can stand; due to limited room to move and exercise these chickens often have weak, brittle bones that can’t support their weight) and are allowed to be mutilated in various ways including beak and toe trimming, wing clipping and de-snooding.
Cage Free, Barn Laid, Free-Range
From here there are a variety of other defining criteria, standards and regulatory bodies that guide the labels that land on your carton of eggs.
Caged free, Barn laid and even Free-Range eggs are not necessarily distinctively different and depending on which, if any, regulatory standards are practiced will determine exactly what goes on before the eggs make it to supermarket shelves.
Generally all three of these terms means that chickens live, equivalently unnaturally short live, in large crowded sheds, but not cages. They are likely to have access to nesting areas or perches (unlike caged), however various forms of mutilation, like beak trimming, are still allowed. Some Free-Range will also have access to outdoor areas but this is not a guarantee.
Free-Range is an extremely vague terms and due to poor regulation is pretty useless for consumers. Chicken density ranges from 1500 birds per ha to 10,000 per ha, whist there has been reports of Free-Range densities up to 40,000 chickens per ha.
A consumer’s guide to Free-Ranged eggs can be downloaded here.
What are you really getting from Woolworths Free-Range or Barn laid eggs and how does this compare with the supermarket rival Coles?
Both Woolworths and Coles offer their own brand Free-Range and Barn laid eggs, but as we know these terms don’t mean much. The table below shows the standards applied under each label.
I was extremely surprised to see the standard of Coles Free-Range eggs was actually lower than their Barn laid, while at Woolworths the Free-Range eggs were of a higher standard (slightly) than their Bran laid.
Although between Woolworths Barn laid and the Coles Free-Range the differences aren’t glaring.
The current standards applied by Woolworths, which comply with
the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic
Poultry, will not change with the phase out of their caged eggs and is said to be of a lower standard than the RSPCA standards as used with Coles Barn laid, although as this table suggests the differences are marginal.
So of these four choices the Coles Barn laid eggs scrap through as of the highest ethical standard and were similarly priced marginally higher at the time of this review.
Note, in the 18months of life before these chickens are sent to slaughter (industry standard, even in certified organic), they are not allowed outdoors and are allowed to be mutilated in some way. Male chickens however don’t even make the 18month mark and are killed shortly after
Which eggs should I buy?
Unfortunately the poor standards of the Australian Poultry Industry don’t make the chicken friendly choice of eggs easy.
I have been guilty of buying caged eggs and am guilty of making
choices based on my budget not animal welfare, but am working to reduce my reliance on this industry by choose alternatives to eggs in baking such as banana or apple purees (1/3 cup = 1 egg), or ground flaxseed or chia seed (1tbsp + 3tbsp water = 1 egg).
I am trying to source my eggs locally from ‘backyard’ chickens and have
started a started a Facebook page to help locals connect with home grown produce such as eggs (you can view the page here and are welcome to use this model to start a similar initiative in your area – and of course please share your stories with us).
So next time you sit down to a soft boiled, sunny side or scrambled egg, spare a thought for the chicken who laid it for you. Be aware of the choices you are making and engage with the food system you are immersed in. Appreciate and savour the humble egg, along with all food as there is an extensive and exhaustive production system that goes into getting it from paddock to plate.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.