Free range chooks not always better off than their caged cousins?

20 Oct

Guest blog today by Gerard Oosterman, artist, farmer and blogger. 

Don't fence me in

Things are hardly ever what they appear to be, especially not in the world of shopping, and in particular, in the world of egg buying. A few nights ago we were jolted into the reality of animal cruelty when a program on chooks and their environs was presented on ABC television‘s 7.30 Report.

It proved to be an amazing world of deceit, cunning, and hoodwinking of you, the customer. If you thought that buying ‘free range’ eggs made you into a person caring for the welfare of the Rhode-Island Reds, think again. Unlike in the EU where the term ‘free range’ means a minimum of 4 square metres of open space per chicken and a mandatory supply of greenery, here ‘free range’ can be even more cruel and horrific than caged birds.

The European Union regulates marketing standards for egg farming which specifies the following (cumulative) minimum conditions for the free-range method:

  • hens have continuous daytime access to open-air runs, except in the case of temporary restrictions imposed by veterinary authorities,
  • the open-air runs to which hens have access is mainly covered with vegetation and not used for other purposes except for orchards, woodland and livestock grazing if the latter is authorized by the competent authorities,
  • the open-air runs must at least satisfy the conditions specified in Article 4(1)(3)(b)(ii) of Directive 1999/74/EC whereby the maximum stocking density is not greater than 2500 hens per hectare of ground available to the hens, or one hen per 4m2 at all times and the runs are not extending beyond a radius of 150 m from the nearest pophole of the building; an extension of up to 350 m from the nearest pophole of the building is permissible provided that a sufficient number of shelters and drinking troughs within the meaning of that provision are evenly distributed throughout the whole open-air run with at least four shelters per hectare.[

It is different in Australia where there seems to be an open slather on deceiving customers into thinking that free range eggs, which are often 2 to 3 times the price of caged eggs, are somehow produced by happy chickens, freely cavorting and picking their food from open grassy fields.

Those EU standards are certainly not applied here. The latest regulation now allows a staggering 20 000 chickens per Ha (10,000 sq metres). That is one chicken per half a sq M. This in effect raises their stress levels to such an extent it results in cannibalism. No worries, the chooks are then de-beaked. This was demonstrated on the young pullets by putting their beaks into a feeding tube. Instead of getting feed, they get instantly de-beaked. Footage was shown of the young pullets with bleeding beaks.

If you thought the Australian Egg board would be keen to improve conditions for the poor chooks or at least comply with EU standards, think again. A quick scan through the list of directors reads like the who’s who of some of the largest ‘free range’ operators, egg marketers and producers.

Hardly a bunch of unbiased, independent operators keen on improving the lot for chickens. Their main aim is to improve profits not kindness to chooks.

In Sweden, where else, caged eggs have been banned. In many other European countries, main supermarkets, including Aldi, do not stock caged eggs anymore. At least the ‘free range’ eggs have the legislative back up of a maximum of 2500 chooks per Ha (1 chicken per 4sq metres). How come, after so much publicity of late about the plight of chooks, this hasn’t been implemented here? It makes one wonder if the caged eggs are not a better and more ethical deal here after all.

I just hope Tony Abbott hasn’t got his finger in the eggs, he’s such a freemarketeer.

Gerard blogs at  Oosterman Treats Blog

12 Responses to “Free range chooks not always better off than their caged cousins?”

  1. paul walter October 20, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Chooks are very underestimated.
    Years ago, my nanna once called me over with a grin, to throw to a mob of them in a run some chop bones- what followed was as illumunating as it was complex and side splitting.
    Who doesn’t know of some one that has had a pet chook, the intelligence IS there with them
    and I’m glad Gerard has mentioned of yet another report on their travails.
    These excerpts are invariably depressing through to heart wrenching, if it shows I’ll give it a miss just now, uugghh..sorry.


    • gerard oosterman October 20, 2011 at 9:53 am #

      Chickens are bright indeed. On the farm we never could eat our own chickens but loved their eggs. Odd, isn’t it? One chook used to squat down whenever I went to her, perhaps hoping for a mating. Needless to say I was never tempted!


  2. Sam Jandwich October 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    I can certainly attest to chickens’ preference for getting out and roaming free. My two chickens, Nina and Gertrude, live in a coop in the back garden. They love going outside for a scratch around and whenever they spot me they rush to the door and beg to be let out, but I shamefully have to admit that I have limited their free-ranging to Saturdays, and to the occasional one-hour mini-break in the evenings. They really are incredibly destructive, digging up entire sections of garden and nipping off every single shoot of new growth they come across. They are certainly more than capable of demolishing more than 4 square metres each of vegetation per day, in the process of producing their 5-6 eggs per week – retail value approx 50 cents each. Looking after my two little dears has definitely brought home to me just how many chickens you would need to pack into a confined space to turn a profit.

    So I tell myself, Ms’ N & G should count themselves lucky, and whenever guilt overcomes me I chop up their favourite food (cabbage) into bite-sized pieces and sprinkle it liberally at their feet.


    • Jennifer Wilson October 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      There’s a gang of roaming chickens round here and they regularly wreak devastation in gardens. Their owner also has two dogs that get out and chase traffic. It’s a mystery to me how these dogs survive, and I’ve almost squashed them on more than one occasion, accidentally. They go nuts when I drive past in the truck,a vehicle they associate with the Dog that rules at our place, even when he’s not in it or on it.

      But every now and then a chook apparently disappears, when some exasperated gardener manages to catch one and wring it’s neck, I suppose. I love chooks. I wish we had some, but its hard enough getting the Dog minded when we decide to bugger off to a foreign country for a while. These marauders have never got into our veggie garden but I suspect Mrs Chook would abandon all species empathy and flog them if they did. The Dog is useless in these situations, owing to Mrs Chook having rigorously trained him not to chase anything except cats. The last cat he got anywhere near beat him to a bloody pulp. It’s name was Gilbert and it had to be locked in the laundry every time we visited. It died a while ago. Serves it right. Hell, what am I raving on like this for when there is so much serious stuff to be done? I’m reading about gender feminists. Man, can they can be scary.


  3. Sam Jandwich October 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Grrrrr, don’t talk to me about cats! I found half a ringtail possum outside my front door this morning!! Sounds like we both need to get DoCS around to sort out the delinquents in our respective neighbourhoods 😉


    • gerard oosterman October 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

      Take out an AVIO against the cat. Chickens and vegie patches don’t go together either. I had an e-mail in my junk box this morning “Hear women screaming in your bed”, “free 30 day enlargement trial”.
      What is the world coming to;The days of “ring a ring a rosie are surely over.”


      • Jennifer Wilson October 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

        It took me a few minutes to work out what that junk mail message was about. I thought it might be an advertisement for a new ring tone on the mobile.


      • gerard oosterman October 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

        Yes, I know. Nothing is innocent anymore.


  4. Gruffbutt October 24, 2011 at 4:37 am #

    Been a while since I’ve bothered posting comments anywhere, but congrats on a site with a relatively civil discourse. I read many blogs far more than I post.

    Thought it worth mentioning that a few years ago, Choice reviewed the Victorian ‘free range’ producers, and Family Homestead was the only one resembling the ethical choice you’d hope for under the loosely applied free range label (no beak trimming, for one) and was the only one certified by some five-letter mob with stringent guidelines whose name escapes me.

    I have absolutely no connection to Family Homestead or anything remotely involved with the industry. I do look for this label though. It appears randomly in some of the big supermarket stores, possibly depending on the suburb/town. (I’m obviously talking from a Victorian perspective.)

    I’ve also come across a brand from South Australia with an Animal Liberation tick on it, which I assume would be legit.

    Still, if the industry and the labelling were properly regulated, there should be no need for (correct) articles like the one above, or angst-ridden breakfasts.



    • Jennifer Wilson October 24, 2011 at 6:32 am #

      Thanks Gruffbuff, for your appreciation of our almost always friendly site and for that information. Hope you come back.


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