Despite what the labelling says, the truth is that there is little difference in the way the egg is produced. For the first time in 15 years, a complete overhaul of the system is on the cards.
As the horrors of battery cages have become more widely known, consumers have, to their credit, responded by turning to various alternatives. Barn-laid, RSPCA approved, certified free-range, certified organic…they certainly sound better than cage eggs, but what do they really mean?
While the term “barn-laid” may conjure up quaint notions of a wholesome, agrarian tableau, the reality is somewhat less idyllic. Due to often high stocking densities, hens have severely restricted space, no access to the outdoors and are still subject to the cruel practice of debeaking, which involves partial removal of the beak without pain relief.
Certified free-range eggs have for some time been the go-to choice for discerning consumers. In 2016, state and federal ministers signed off on a new national standard for what classifies as “free range”. Disappointingly, they ignored recommendations by animal advocacy groups and consumer group CHOICE for a maximum of 1,500 hens per hectare and instead settled on a standard that permits a stocking density of up to 10,000 hens per hectare…that’s one hen every square metre.
So while free-range operations may not confine their hens in cages, many are still subject to the kind of overcrowding inherent in a factory-farmed environment. Furthermore, depending on the certification body, debeaking may still be permitted.
The females will take their place on the factory line, however their brothers have no commercial value to the egg industry and as such, are routinely piled into industrial, high-speed blenders and ground up alive.
This brings us certified organic eggs, which offer much the same conditions as those found in free-range facilities, however, the hens are fed organic grains and debeaking is not permitted.
The system of egg carton labelling is confusing, and in need of a major overhaul. Worse still, the “RSPCA Approved” badge neither guarantees the provision of outdoor space to hens nor does it necessarily prohibit the brutal practice of debeaking.
So with the above information in mind, you could be forgiven for thinking that if you stick to certified organic eggs, you are making an ethical choice. Well, not so fast. For years, I thought that to buy organic or free range was to do no harm. But then I dug deeper and discovered that all is not as it seems with the Australian egg industry. All commercial egg producers, even the boutique organic ones, practice an industry standard that shocked me.
To replace “spent” hens, millions of chicks are hatched each year. And just like us, roughly half are born female and half male. So what happens to the male chicks? The million-dollar question most people never think to ask. What becomes of those chicks unable to produce eggs? The females will take their place on the factory line, however their brothers have no commercial value to the egg industry. They are considered wastage and as such, millions of day old male chicks are routinely piled into industrial, high-speed blenders and ground up alive.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Pets: Free to the worst home imaginable
- TBS Next Gen: Dairy industry left crying after ads decrying spilt milk
- TBS Next Gen: Suffering pigs in factory farming
So what’s an ethical consumer to do? Well, if you’re not ready to eliminate eggs from your diet, you might consider reducing your consumption of them. I would also recommend downloading CluckAR, the free, free range egg app by CHOICE. This app enables you to scan free range egg cartons in the supermarket and see which brands meet your expectations of what constitutes free range. Steer clear of those with stocking densities of 10,000 hens per hectare, and ensure your dollars support those producers who voluntary adhere to stocking densities that are truly reflective of the commonsense meaning of the term “free range”.
On a final note, the Model Code of Practice for Poultry is currently under review for the first time in 15 years. This code sets the standard for the treatment of chickens and currently condones the permanent confinement of hens, painful debeaking and the maceration of day-old male chicks. This public consultation offers consumers a rare opportunity to have their say, so if you would like to help consign battery cages to the annals of history, you can click here to do so.