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Episode S3E1
Egg labels: Cracking into the questions

Egg labels: Cracking into the questions. With Talulah Gaunt.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Monday, 25 September 2023
Talulah Gaunt, Manager - RSPCA Approved, shares valuable insights into how the egg industry operates, and how we as consumers can make lives better for the millions of Aussie layer hens.


Talulah: ... so it's a real minefield when it comes to labels and I completely see how, you know, for consumers, you just want to make a quick decision that is right and there's doing the good thing, and there's all this information ...

Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk. My name is Brian Daly and today we're talking about eggs. Free range, barn laid, caged, cage free, what these labels mean, and the welfare implications the different methods posed for the hens that lay them and to provide us with all the answers our expert guest from RSPCA Australia today is Talulah Gaunt, the manager of the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme. Welcome back to the podcast, Talulah.

Talulah: Thanks, Brian. Good to be here again.

Brian: Now, I used to assume that everyone knew that eggs came from chickens until I met someone rather high up in the media industry who said they always thought they came from cartons. So rather than assume, can you give us an overview of the egg industry in Australia? Because it is a pretty big industry, isn't it?

Talulah: Yeah, I think people are always actually quite surprised when they hear about the scale and numbers behind some of the products that we farm in Australian agriculture. And particularly when it comes to the number of animals that are farmed, I think that's always something that sort of blows people's minds a little bit. So in Australia, the ABS actually reports that we have a total flock size of 16.8 million hens. So that's all the layer hens across the country that are busy laying our eggs, and there's around 500 businesses. So the mix of businesses is quite interesting. We have some bigger players who have lots of different farms and lots of different operations that feed into those farms. And they might cover multiple different production methods, or just focus on one production method. And then we also have lots of small businesses. So there's, you know, boutiquey style caravan pasture based eggs production, right through to, you know, even individual businesses that operate say one large cage operation, but the egg industry is actually a lot more than just that farm where the layer hens lay their eggs. It includes breeder farms. So that's where we have male and female birds who are producing fertilized eggs. And then those eggs go on to a hatchery where they're incubated. And the hatchery is the place where they're also sought the chicks into, yep, this is a layer hen that will go off in the future and, you know, lay eggs. This is a male chick or an unviable female, they're actually going to be culled. And then we have pullet rearers. So they're the ones that are rearing those female hens that are gonna go on to become, you know, egg producing, but they're at that younger age where they're not actually laying eggs yet. And then we obviously have the farms themselves, that's where the hens are busy laying their eggs. And often farms have their own grading and packing areas. So they're actually putting those eggs into the cartons, you know, where they where they supposedly come from. And then beyond that, you know, we have some farms who process their spent hens. So spent hens are when they are deemed at the end of their egg commercial life. And they will collect those and either process them on farm, or we also have transporters and processors who do that away from the farm. So there's actually lots of different businesses involved in just, you know, the production of an egg.

Brian: And of course, these the hens that lay them in the whole industry, when you're talking about numbers of 16.8 million layer hens, these are a different breed of chicken, then those bred for meat. That's a whole other industry really, isn't it?

Talulah: Yeah, absolutely. So the meat chicken industry is very separate to the egg industry, and even actually a much larger number of birds. So the meat chicken industry has, you know, nearly 700 million birds being processed a year. So that's a huge other industry, but very separate to the egg industry, you know, that they're not really mixing.

Brian: And we said at the outset, there's a lot of different labels on eggs, and they can be quite confusing for people when you're at the supermarket. Can you take us through the different sorts of housing systems used for the hens in Australia?

Talulah: Sure, so there's, I think, three main labels that people will see in the supermarkets and they're actually regulated to have those labels on egg products. Eggs are generally the only ones that we see consistent labeling around methods of production. So in Australia, we have cage eggs. So those are hens that have spent their life in a cage and they've laid the eggs in a cage. The eggs themselves aren't caged, but the hens are, and then we have barn laid eggs or sometimes called cage free eggs, and that's where the hens are kept in a shed or you know, it's basically a large barn and they're able to move around in that shed, sometimes there's different levels for them to go up and down. Sometimes it's just a flat, one level, they'll have nest boxes, so they can go and lay their egg in a secluded nest box, which is really important for them. But they may have other provisions in there, they may not. But generally, they're just within the one shed or barn and no cages in those. And then we have free range productions. So that's the same barn shed system, just with an outdoor area that the birds are let out on to, if there's good weather, you know, for most of their life, you know, eight hours a day, some free range systems that shed can move around a paddock, so it might be called a caravan. And that means that yeah, that shed can go from point to point new pasture and new vegetation. And then some operations, it is stationary, but the birds have access to the outdoors. So those are the three main types that we have in Australia.

Brian: And so obviously, those different methods have different implications for the welfare of those hens most obviously, is the the cage systems. But can you tell us the different welfare issues associated with each of those systems?

Talulah: Yeah, so there can be welfare issues across all of them. But I guess what matters is the ability to improve and some systems there's, you know, we can actually improve them continuously. And some systems, there is a limit to how much they can be improved for animal welfare. And we do have welfare issues that transcend all production methods, and I'll get to that in a bit. But we'll go through the sort of list in terms of the different production methods. So cages have inherent animal welfare issues that relate to the system itself. Hens and battery cages, they experience extreme confinement, and they have extreme behavioral restriction, you know, they don't have enough space to stretch their wings. And due to the inability for them to walk around, flap their wings, perch, they actually have very poor muscle and bone strength and quite a high rate of bone fractures, you know, they're very frustrated, abnormal behaviors come out of that frustration. And overall, that's quite poor welfare for them. And there's many scientific studies that have concluded that good welfare just actually cannot be achieved in battery cages like that has been well researched, and well found out and well peer reviewed, like that is completely substantiated. And the overwhelming consensus among animal welfare experts is that the welfare of hens in battery cages is severely compromised. So that's just a fact that we know. When it comes to barns, so barn laid eggs or cage free eggs, they're actually a really good alternative to cage eggs. And a well managed barn that provides enrichment for the hen can be just as welfare friendly, for hen, even as a proper free range facility. They also have the added benefit of protection from predators. And they're actually quite good in terms of biosecurity because they're not outside mixing potentially with wildlife or wild birds, which is an avian influenza risk. So from an animal welfare perspective, it's actually a bit of a myth that barn is second best, they can be just as good, but the standards can vary. So barns, you know, they generally all have nest boxes, which is where the hens will go and lay their eggs. But they may not all have things like perches for them to get up onto and to roost and to build up that leg and muscle strength. And they also may not have litter, which is essentially what's on the ground, and what hens will dust bathe in and pick out and forage around in, it's really important for them. So some barn systems might just be slatted floor the whole way through and not provide, you know, those additional provisions that enhances the system. And then we have free range as the sort of last one. So again, the indoors is really important, and whether or not they have perches, litter, things to do, enrichment, because even in a free range system, birds will still spend the majority of their life indoors, they're inside overnight. In Australia, we have really hot days, they will generally spend that day inside because they don't want to go outside in the heat. And they'll have things like misters and coolers in good systems. And if the quality of the range isn't inviting to encourage them outside, they will still spend a majority of the time indoors. And that quality of the range is something that's really important in making sure that free range system is a good one. So you know just having a bare paddock or a paddock with just grass and nothing else isn't very inviting or appealing for the birds to venture out into. They're actually quite scared animals and feel very flighty. So they like vegetation, shrubbery, bushes, trees, shade, that actually encourages them to go outside and explore. But in free range, definitely we still need to make sure that we're providing those provisions inside so they still have a stimulating environment and good welfare. So I guess then we have the factors that apply to all the systems and which can compromise layer hen welfare. So at the end of their, you know, egg production life, when they are spent hen there's the depopulation, so the manual going in catching birds up and either processing them on farm or putting them into transport to go and be processed off farm, that can be quite a stressful experience if not done properly. And it's a lot of manual handling for them as well. And then obviously, in the transport and the slaughter side of things, there's definitely areas where there's a lot of room for improvement there to make sure that, you know, they are looked after well, and it's as low stress as possible, and they have a humane death at the end of it. Beak trimming is another one that I'm sure many people have heard about or think about. And it's something that people might see on labels. Beak trimming does actually remain our most effective and easily implemented management strategy in commercial egg production systems to prevent and manage injurious feather pecking. So what that is, is where there can be outbreaks in layer hen flocks, where they literally peck each other to the point of injury. And it can lead to really severe animal welfare consequences so they can get injured, there can be wounds, there can be mortalities, they become cannibals, so it's something that we do need to keep on top of. And certainly, you know, we recommend that and strongly encourage producers to explore alternative strategies and consider phasing out to the practice of beak trimming. But until there's really clear, reliably effective alternatives, then actually infrared beak trimming appears to be the most appropriate strategy because when it's performed correctly, and while it does result in some short term pain, it does prevent injurious feather packing, which has severe and long term negative welfare outcomes for birds. And I guess the last thing that sort of transcends all those systems that people do know about and hear about is male chick culling. So some consumers are quite concerned about the effects of male chicks being a byproduct of the egg industry, and that that hatchery being culled. And that's something that I know many people would definitely like the egg industry to look further into, and to see if there's a way to address that.

Brian: We had an episode in the last season about some technological advances that would allow us to identify male chicks in the eggs before they were even incubated, which would eradicate the need for culling at all. So hopefully, there's some positive outlook on the horizon there.

Talulah: Yeah, definitely. It just it requires investment and consumers to, you know, tell producers and brands that there's something that they would like them to address so that they know that that's what they should be investing in. But there's also lots of other things that we need to be investing in like getting hens out of cages. So yeah, there's definitely lots to do for egg producers at the moment.

Brian: There certainly is a lot to do. And we'll get to where we're up to with the banning of battery cages in a moment. But where does the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme fit in all of this? How does it improve the welfare of hens in these farming systems?

Talulah: Yeah, so the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme is a farm animal welfare certification program. So our mission is to improve the quality of life of farmed animals, we want to see that future of higher-welfare farming. And the way that we do it is RSPCA Australia Science and Policy Team write and develop standards for us to implement with industry. So they provide us a standard. And we go out and speak to producers and brands about the fact that, you know, you use these animals in your products, they need to be farmed in a system that meets their behavioral and physical needs. And this standard is a really great way to do that. And then we have a program of assessment and certification. So producers that we help get to meet the standard, then get assessed very regularly against that standard, and they achieve a certification status. And then we do a lot of work with brands like the retailers and manufacturers food service, who then source from those producers. And they can communicate that to their customers by using the logo. So if someone sees the RSPCA Approved logo, that means that that product or the ingredient that it relates to has been farmed to our standards. And we've been through a very robust and rigorous assessment and certification process to verify that and anyone can go on our website at any point in time and read through the standards and read through the operations of the program and understand how it all works. And I think that's the really important part because labels can tell you a little bit of information or give you some guidance around what the type of system is, but it can't give you a lot of detail. And even things like outdoor stocking densities on free range egg cartons, that still doesn't tell you if it's a quality range and the birds are actually accessing it and using it to then be at that density. So you could have a really low outdoor stocking density. But if you're not providing all the things on the range to encourage birds outside, they actually won't ever get to that density. Because as I said before, they will stay inside, they'll huddle around the shed, that's where they feel safe. So that's something that, you know, that's a really good first step for people to look at understand bit more. But without all that detail, and without speaking to the producer or the brand yourself, you're not necessarily going to get that full understanding. Whereas looking for a certification is a really easy way to know that all those bases are covered in terms of animal welfare.

Brian: So low stocking densities are a good first indicator, but there is more to the story as far as their welfare goes.

Talulah: Yeah, it's another one of those things where, like I said, at the beginning, scale, and numbers is always really interesting in these conversations, because I think for a lot of people, you know, how what does 1,000 hens look like, versus 10,000 hens versus do people even know what a hectare looks like? So it's quite an interesting debate to have. And then, you know, obviously, to most people, any lower number looks better, you know, the lower the better. Surely, that's a good thing. And certainly looking for that lower number is a good first step, I would say that, you know, the operations that have up to 10,000 birds, you know, they could really vary in terms of having, you know, multiple floors inside the sheds. So they can have that high number of birds. And then they could also have, you know, football fields and football fields of space out there. They could be rotational ranges is also the variation just be within that. So like I said before, it's a really good thing to look for. But it doesn't tell you that whole picture. And definitely when we look more at the lower densities, you know, that should ideally show that maybe it's a smaller system, or there's lots of space for them to range around in. But again, it's about that quality of the range. I guess it's a bit of an unsatisfying answer because, yes, it's something good to look at, and that first step, but it doesn't really give you much more. So I know, it's a real like, challenge for people when they've got, you know, almost three seconds in the supermarket of picking up eggs and going, I want to make a good decision. Which one do I go for? Yeah, obviously looking for that lower number, that's going to be an easy option for them to go. But you know, even just buying cage free is still a good option for layer hen welfare. But I guess if people were really wanting to know more and understand more, asking the brand about, you know, what are you actually doing to encourage birds to go outside? What does your system look like? You know, have they got videos on their website that actually show you which some free range egg producers do, you can jump on their website, and they've got little webcams, and you can see any day, rain or shine, what is going on. That kind of transparency is excellent, people can actually really go and understand that system more. But on the labels themself. Yeah, unless that brand is, you know, talking about what they're doing or got photos, that imagery is really hard to know, much more. And there's not a lot of room on packaging for that level of detail. Which again, is why, you know, looking for a certification that you can trust, and that aligns with your values is a really good way to have that quick three second decision.

Brian: And what about those other terms that you might see, like, organic or hormone free? Did these have any bearing on the welfare of the hens? Or are they just marketing terminology or greenwashing?

Talulah: Two sort of things. So we talked about organic and hormone free there, so organic has, I guess, essentially a focus on avoiding use of synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, antibiotics. So it's more of, you know, I guess, a philosophy, let's say, not necessarily a philosophy, but that's kind sort of the guise and in animal production, you know, may aim to provide a more natural environment for animals, and it might include access to the outdoors and might be more applicable to free range producers. But again, standards can vary greatly. And it doesn't necessarily mean the production of the animal has been good in terms of animal welfare, or very welfare focused, you know, animal welfare is kind of like a separate thing, almost to organic. And then on hormone free, that's actually something that doesn't apply to eggs. Because in poultry industries, birds haven't been given hormones for decades. So people might see hormone free on beef and pork. And that's actually quite a valid label for those industries, because those animals can be given hormones, but on say, chicken meat and eggs, that doesn't necessarily happen. So that one is a little bit misleading, because I think some brands will use that on their marketing because they see it as something that consumers are looking for and interested in. But none of the other eggs on the shelf have hormones in them and none of the other hens have been given hormones. So it's not really something that's any special for that product itself. So that one probably don't need to worry about looking for that label when it comes to eggs or chicken meat. So it's a real minefield when it comes to labels, and I completely see how you know, for consumers, again, you just want to make a quick decision that is right and is doing the good thing. And there's all this information. So obviously, if you see things that are low numbers and saying free, those are going to look good, like they look good to anyone. But it's definitely something I think people would benefit from understanding all the nuance behind it. But I can see how it's super challenging and how it's just easier to look for a certification or a logo and know it's been taken care of.

Brian: Which is where that RSPCA Approved logo can really help provide that certainty, or at the very least, not buying cage eggs, as those battery cage systems are, as you said, inherently incapable of providing good animal welfare. Now, I know RSPCA has been campaigning for years, well decades, really, on this issue of banning battery cages in Australia. But the government's and the industry seem to have been very slow to act. They've been looking at updating the poultry standards and guidelines for years now. But I understand there's finally some movement there. Can you give us an update on where that process is up to?

Talulah: Yep, so definitely, I've many, many years and many decades of campaigning for some of my colleagues. And yeah, so the what we have in Australia is model codes of practice. And they essentially underpin the legislation. And for the last decade or so many of those have been updated into what we're calling animal welfare standards and guidelines. And so those are the new standards or guidelines, which will then underpin state and territory legislation. And so there's different standards and guidelines for different sectors, such as, you know, processing, and then also the categories of animals such as poultry. And so the animal welfare standards and guidelines for poultry have been under review for over seven years now. It's meant to be a two year process. So you can see how that's just sort of gone on for quite some time. But definitely some good news. So yeah, just that towards the end of last year, they were published, and they propose a phase out of barren battery cages no later than 2036, which I know for many people, when they hear that number that is still so far away, why isn't it happening now? It does take a long time to change infrastructure, you know, move ahead and build these facilities or change the facilities that you have, and not interrupt the egg supply. But there's nothing that means that, you know, states and territories can't move quicker, and certainly other some are, and some, you know, are still thinking about how they're doing it. The ACT for example whilst you know, we don't have any egg production at the moment, we did put an end date on battery cages back in 2014. So the stage that we're at right now is that those standards or guidelines have been proposed with that date. It's now up to the state governments and the Territory Government to basically have the courage and take the next step and implement those standards and guidelines, and join many, many other countries, the rest of the world that have either already phased battery cages out and some of them even legislated it last century, or working on their transition to do that with industry and giving industry that clear pathway ahead, I think is the most important thing, because then we all know what we're working towards, rather than seven years of essentially limbo and not really knowing where they're going to land. So we've definitely made progress, even if it's been a little slow. And now the next few years is definitely the crunch point. So it's going to be exciting to see what happens. Regardless of that, brands have almost sort of gone ahead and done it themselves. So we have quite a number of brands, retailers that have already transitioned. McDonald's, they got rid of cage eggs back in 2017. So they've been cage free for years now, five years, retailers are working towards the date of 2025. They've definitely made significant progress there. So the sort of industry, I guess, is already moving ahead with that, regardless of the legislation being 2036. But we need that legislation in there to get rid of any cages left that might be going into places that those brands maybe don't have a commitment or policy around it.

Brian: And how can consumers help drive that issue and bring that incredibly far off date forward?

Talulah: I think many people think that the cage free debate is just done and because they buy it in the supermarket and don't see caged eggs very much in the supermarket that it's already been solved. But absolutely, we need people to still be thinking about it and talking about it wherever they use eggs. So you know, if you're eating at a cafe on the weekend, ask are those are these eggs cage free? Are they free range? If your workplace has a catering policy and you're you know getting catering for an event or even baking a cake for the office? Just actually having that conversation about are these eggs cage free. There's already simple things that just keep that momentum going. You know, you could even be doing a sports thing on the weekend with your kids and everyone's doing egg and bacon rolls. Making sure if we're buying that catering pack of eggs that they are cage free as well, that just really shows that to brands that there is support for cage free eggs. And market does lead when people vote with their wallets that will change the industry. So that's where not only when you're buying it for your home eggs, you need to be thinking about eggs and all other areas and making sure that those are cage free. And cage free is, as you said before, and as I said earlier, is a good choice for hens. There's nothing wrong with cage free eggs. Definitely a good step up and a good alternative to cage eggs.

Brian: I hadn't said sounds like something we could all be a part of and all help drive forward. So thanks so much Talulah for your time today. It's it's been great to speak with you again, as always. I do sincerely hope we do see some movement on that battery cages issue well before 2036 as you sound very confident of. But thanks for unscrambling some of the confusion around how eggs are produced here in Australia, and how we as consumers can help make things better for the millions of hens that provide us with those eggs. So thanks for talking with us today.

Talulah: Thanks, Brian. It's a pleasure.

Brian: We've been talking today with Talulah Gaunt, the manager of the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme. And thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme visit rspcaapproved.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA Australia website, rspca.org.au, or all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk.

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