Free range eggs not necessarily high on welfare according to Hunter farmer

WELFARE: A Hunter egg producer has poured cold water on a new report that says Australians are moving away from lower-welfare eggs. Picture: Jay Cronana
WELFARE: A Hunter egg producer has poured cold water on a new report that says Australians are moving away from lower-welfare eggs. Picture: Jay Cronana

A Hunter Valley farmer has cast doubt on a report that stated Australians are moving toward humane chicken egg production.

Last week, the Australian Egg Corporation Limited's (AECL) annual report revealed caged eggs now account for 49.5 per cent of all grocery egg sales by volume, down from 74.9 per cent a decade ago.

It’s the first time since the battery hen boom that caged eggs have dropped below 50 per cent of the market share. In the same period, free range egg consumption doubled from 20.3 per cent to 40.7 per cent, reflecting consumers’ growing interest in animal welfare.

But Hunter egg producer Mick Killen, who runs Papanui Open Range Eggs, said consumers were having “the wool pulled over their eyes” if they believed free range eggs in supermarkets were humane.

“The only reason the numbers have changed is because the big producers have stolen the term ‘free range’ in order to price gouge the consumers,” he said.

Mr Killen was referring to recent legislation that defined “free range” eggs as coming from hens that have meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range and are subject to an outdoor stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare or less.

“In other words, that’s one hen per square metre,” he said.

“People see the green grass on the package and think the farm is like that. These hens are packed in.

“Our politicians have, once again, let us down.”

Consumer advocates, animal activists and some free range egg farmers continue to argue the definition should be 750-1500 hens per hectare. The RSPCA is working to ban the use of battery cages.

Mr Killen said the price expectations most people held for high-welfare eggs were simply too low to be possible.

“If you go to a major supermarket you probably won’t find truly free-range eggs,” he said.

“If you’re not paying close to $10 a dozen, they’re probably not free range. That’s just what it costs when you factor in the costs of a farm, the transport, the profit from the supermarket. $6 a dozen just doesn’t add up.”

While Papanui claims to have some of the highest welfare standards in the industry, Mr Killen said cage eggs still have a place.

“I think about single parents, trying to give their kids a healthy and cheap meal. That’s where cage eggs still have a purpose,” he said.

“But what doesn’t have a place are the people in the middle, who use the term ‘free range’.”

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