Which should come first, the chicken or the free range egg?
Something’s a little rotten in the world of eggs. You might think things are all sunny side-up when you purchase your carton of free range eggs, but the meaning of the term “free range” is more than a little scrambled.
The Australian Egg Corporation is pushing to expand eggsponentially the number of chooks allowed on free range farms from 1,500 to 20,000. This has attracted eggsclamations of anger from environmentalists and animal proteggtionists.
So is the logic of our chief egg body really as cracked up as everyone is saying? Well, yes and no. Or as they say in the egg business, six of one, half a dozen of the other. Let me eggsplain.
Currently, the laws pertaining to chook numbers are cracked and broken. Queensland law defines free range as a maximum density of 1,500 birds per hectare. In SA, there’s a push to have a medium density free range category of 1,500 to 5,000 birds and a high density free range category of 5,000 to 10,000.
And so on, eggcetera, eggcetera around the country. Generally, most people consider 1,500 hens per hectare as the maximum sustainable figure. So where on earth does our beak egg body get the 20,000 figure from?
This, they say, allows two hens per square metre. And when hens are stocked at two per square metre, there is apparently enough space for them to do all the thing consumers eggspect, like scratching in the dirt, pecking in the grass and flapping their wings outside of a hen house.
The Egg Corp has produced a video showing that two birds per square metre allows plenty of room, but critics don’t buy it. They say paddocks will turn into mudbaths and/or dustbowls. We put this to a spokesman from the Egg Corp, who said chickens could shift to other paddocks if that happened.
So we said, hang on. Why not use all those spare paddocks to house half the flock instead of cramming them all in together?
And he said, um… Let me get back to you on that one.
And we said! Aha! We win the logic battle. Now for the fried egg cook off!
Without being too egg flippant, we actually think the Egg Corp has a point. While the figure of 20,000 hens per hectare is worth debating, you don’t have to be an egghead to work out that we need a uniform and fair definition of free range which applies around the country. Like a national rail guage, only kind of more like a national quail guage.
This is especially important as it is widely known that almost a third of free range farms currently stock at rates HIGHER than 20,000 birds per hectare, but get away with marketing their eggs as free range because the chooks are not caged.
For the record, the Australian Egg Corporation has commissioned research into future egg prices. If every farm was stocked at 1,500 hens per hectare, we could be paying as much as $12 a dozen.
Its long term goal is to have a multi-tiered labelling system for various types of free range eggs. The system won’t be perfect, and will no doubt eggsasperate some people, but as the old saying goes, you’ve got to break eggs to make an omelette.
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