Australians care about animals and their welfare; as a nation we are progressively seeking to be educated consumers in the products we buy. With the increase in shoppers choosing cage-free and free-range eggs, it’s clear the welfare of egg-laying hens is of concern to many. However, the abundance of different labels adorning egg cartons means choosing higher welfare eggs can be a confusing endeavour. Currently there are no nationally agreed definitions for product labelling in Australia, except for eggs sold in cartons which must be labelled according to the system they are farmed in. While this is a good step, there are still ambiguous and potentially misleading terms being used by brands to market their products, appeal to customers and potential mislead Australians.
What does good layer hen welfare mean for RSPCA Approved?
Egg-laying hens are naturally social and inquisitive birds. For good welfare they need space to move, spread and flap their wings, places to perch and areas to dust bathe in order to remain happy and healthy. Choosing RSPCA Approved eggs is one way to make sure you are buying certified higher welfare eggs from either cage-free or free-range hens.
Hens on RSPCA Approved farms live in enriched environments that are fully indoors or indoors with outdoor access, and they are assessed regularly to make sure the RSPCA Standards are met. Here at the RSPCA, we know good welfare can be achieved in indoor barns with proper provisions for space, good lighting, secluded nest boxes and enrichment such as litter for dustbathing and perches for roosting. Where hens are given access to the outdoors (free range), that outdoor range needs to be a quality environment with shaded areas and vegetation to encourage the hens to venture outside and explore. Whether your RSPCA Approved eggs have come from barn or free-range hens, you can be sure that the farms have met the RSPCA’s detailed animal welfare Standard for hens and regularly assessed.
But what about the many other labels found on egg cartons? Here is how to recognise what they really mean:
Labelling Terms Cracked.
In Australia, eggs sold in the carton are labelled according to the farming system that produced them (cage, barn, free range). An important development is that free-range eggs are now required to include the outdoor stocking density on their cartons; however, this alone is not necessarily a conclusive indicator of good welfare.
Cage Eggs: Eggs from layer hens confined to battery cages roughly the size of an A4 piece of paper. The RSPCA considers the ongoing use of barren battery cages as the gravest animal welfare issue in Australia today, in terms of the number of animals affected and how severely their welfare is compromised. Hens in battery cages suffer throughout their lives, unable to express their natural behaviours and enduring chronic health conditions such as osteoporosis due to their lack of exercise, all whilst standing on bare wire. Labels you might also see on egg cartons such as ‘hen coops’ and ‘enriched colony reared’ which give the romanticised impression of an idyllic country life for hens: however, they are simply alternative labels for conventional cage systems (hen coop) or furnished cage systems (enriched colony reared). Furnished cages are an improvement from conventional cage systems as they provide more space and some enrichment, however neither cage system can fully cater for a hen’s physical and behaviour needs.
Cage-Free/Barn Laid: Cage-Free and Barn Laid are different labels for essentially the same type of farming system. Barn laid eggs are from hens that are kept in large sheds with room to move and nest boxes to lay their eggs. Not all barns have enrichment or quality litter, which is why it’s important to ask the brand how the hens are kept inside the shed or look for a reputable third-party certification with detailed publicly available standards that describes the housing system - like RSPCA Approved. A well-managed barn system can be a very good alternative to cage eggs and provides hens with added protection from the elements, predators and disease transmission.
Free-Range: Hens in free-range systems are provided with access to outdoor areas during daylight hours weather permitting and spend their nights in barns with nest boxes to lay their eggs. The label of free range is often interpreted to be the best option for welfare, but it’s important to note that having outdoor access alone is not a conclusive indicator good welfare. A good free-range outdoor area should have vegetation for foraging and plenty of shelter to encourage hens to venture outside, however there is no legal requirement for these to be provided. Outdoor stocking densities of up to 10,000 birds per hectare are allowed. There is no requirement by law for free range farms to be assessed to ensure they adhering to the legal minimums. Even on free-range farms, hens will still spend most of their time indoors, so the quality of the indoor environment is just as important, if not more so, and this is often overlooked. This is where asking the brand for more information about the system can be useful, or alternatively looking for third party certification.
Other labels that you might see on free range eggs are certified organic – hens raised on an organic diet free from chemicals and antibiotics with access to outdoor areas and certified by an organic certification program – and pasture raised – from hens who have access to pastures and live in smaller caravans which are moved about the paddock.
Finally, you may have noticed some common phrases popping up on egg cartons such as ‘natural living’ ‘farm fresh’ ‘no de-beaking’ and ‘Australian grown’ that give the illusion of eggs coming from a certain type of farming. These are buzzword terms and are in no way relevant to how the hen lived or the conditions on farm. All whole carton eggs sold in Australia are laid in Australia and layer hens are not de-beaked in any system although beak trimming is allowed.
When it comes to a future of good farm animal welfare, egg buyers are influential with the choices they make. Each purchase of an animal product is a vote for the system that produced it. Your choices matter and you have the power to speak up for layer hens when you purchase higher welfare eggs like cage-free, free-range and RSPCA Approved and help to support Aussie farmers in giving curious and clucky hens a good life.