Last week, I wrote about ethical beef here in Australia, and I came to the conclusion that beef standards here are excellent. This week, I’m writing about ethical chickens and eggs, and the picture isn’t nearly as rosy.
Battery vs free range vs organic chickens and eggs: which should you choose?
Chicken used to be a luxury food. My dad grew up on a farm in NSW, and he tells me that beef was everyday food, chicken only for special occasions. Usually the chicken was a boiler that had come to the end of it’s laying life, or perhaps a rooster that wasn’t needed.
Over the last 50 years, we’ve got to the point that chicken is cheap meat, and eggs are a cheap source of protein. But this comes at a high cost to the welfare of the chickens.
Conventional (Factory Farmed or Battery) Eggs & Chickens
I have a friend who is a vet nurse, and when she was younger she worked in a factory chicken farm. To this day, she won’t eat conventionally farmed chicken or cage eggs – she said the conditions for the chickens were absolutely appalling. Our taste for cheap chicken has led to these kinds of conditions being legal.
Australian standards for laying chickens means that it’s okay for chickens to be kept under these conditions:
- birds have no access to the outdoors
- there can be up to 20 chickens per square meter (measure that out and see how small that space is!)
- the Australian standard is 550 cm2 per hen. To give you an idea of how large a space that is, an A4 piece of paper is 620 cm2
- there can be tens of thousands of chickens in a single shed
- they can be exposed to up to 23 hours of artificial light per day
- the unenriched environment and lack of space means that the chickens can’t do basic chicken things like flapping their wings, stretching, foraging and dust bathing
- this leads to frustration, fearfulness and aggression which can manifest in pecking, bullying and even cannibalism. To try to stop this, chickens are routinely de-beaked (amputating upper and lower beaks)
The RSPCA actively campaigns against battery cages for layer hens.
Meat chickens can’t be kept in cages. They’re housed in large barns or sheds. Otherwise, the standards are similar to those of layer hens.
Meat chickens must have access to litter (usually wood shavings or rice husks), so that they can peck and dust bathe. However, the litter doesn’t have to be changed for the whole time that the chickens are in the barn. Chickens can be up to 55 days old when they’re killed, so that’s 2 months worth of chicken poo accumulating in the litter.
Stocking levels (density of chickens per square metre) are based on weight. Australian standards say that stocking levels are from 28-40kgs per square metre. If you work that out, that means up to 20 chickens per square metre. It’s not exactly free to roam.
Up to 90% of meat chickens in Australia are conventionally produced, which means that only 10-15% are free range, and less than 1% are organic. That’s a lot of unhappy chickens.
What is free range chicken and free range eggs?
Unlike organic, there are no national standards for free range. There was a model code of practice published by the CSIRO a few years back, and there are a number of certification bodies.
Some of the certification bodies are:
- Humane Choice – True Free Range
- Accredited Free Range (FREPA)
- Free Range Farmers Association
- RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme
There is a good run down of each of these schemes in an easy to read table, by Sustainable Table.
The RSPCA standards cover both indoor and outdoor farms. RSPCA standards for layer hens include:
- minimum of 8 hours per day continuous darkness
- must have access to litter areas to dust bathe
- must have at least one nest for every 7 birds
- suitable perches must be available at all times
- must have environmental enrichment to allow pecking at all times
- no more than 7 birds per square metre
- no more than 1500 birds per hectare
- no induced or forced moulting permitted
However, they don’t have to have outdoor access.
The RSPCA standards for meat chickens are very similar to those for layer hens. The litter must be kept dry, and must be changed when it’s wet or fouled. Stocking density is still high, at 28 to 34 kgs per square metre, or up to 17 chickens.
Compare these with FREPA, Free Range Farmers Association or the organic standards, and it becomes clear that even the RSPCA standards aren’t that great.
It’s important that you look for free range certifications on your eggs or chickens, because anyone can call their produce free range. It’s the logos that let you know you’re getting what you’re paying for – ethical eggs and ethical chicken!
What about organic chickens and organic eggs?
Organic chickens and organic eggs must be certified to one of the Australian certified organic standards. Some of these are:
- ACO (Australian Certified Organic)
- BFA (Biological Farmers Association)
- NASAA (National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia)
- OFA (organic food chain) and
- OGA (Organic Growers of Australia)
Australian certified organic standards hold animal welfare to be of the highest importance:
- prohibits cages for both layer hens and meat chicken
- chickens have access to pastures
- chickens should be encouraged to go outside, and there should be shade, feed, water and foraging so that they’ll spend time outside
- feed must be pesticide, herbicide and synthetic fertiliser free, as well as non GMO for the whole of the chickens’ lives
- they may never be given antibiotics (if they are given them for health reasons, they can no longer be classed as organic)
- they have to have access to weatherproof housing, and space to roost and to lay (for laying hens)
- they must be protected from predators
- they must have at least 8 hours of darkness each night
- chickens must be allowed to form natural social groups with adequate provision of feeding and drinking facilities so that they’re not competing for food and water
- no debeaking or poly peepers (like little blinders that discourage chickens from pecking)
- must not be more than 2500 chickens per hectare
Organic standards focus on animal welfare, environmental sustainability and protecting the habitats of native animals.
Make sure to look for the certified organic logos on your chicken or your eggs, so that you know that you’re getting produce from farms with high standards of animal welfare. If there’s no logo, it can simply mean that animals have been fed organic feed, or it can be simple, misleading greenwash. Always look for the logo.
What about other poultry?
If you’re buying duck or turkey, or game birds, check for the organic logos and the free range certifications. These offer similar standards as they do for chickens.
Misleading claims on chickens and eggs
Those sneaky marketing dudes know how easy it is to confuse time-poor shoppers. I do heaps of research, and yet I’ve fallen for the greenwash myself. Here’s a few common ones designed to trick us into thinking that our chooks and eggs are higher welfare:
- ‘green’ or ‘eco’ eggs. There’s no legal meanings to these terms, so unless you can see organic logos or free range certifications, skip them. You’d think that EcoEggs would be good stuff, wouldn’t you? In fact, EcoEggs were in trouble a few years ago with the ACCC for lying about how free their free range chooks were.
- ‘free range’ sounds good, but look for the logos of RSPCA at the very least, preferably FREPA or Free Range Farmer’s Association. Choice Magazine recently worked out which ‘free range’ eggs are actually free range. I recommend that you read the article, as there’s a few surprises in there (and a few brands that I’ve now blacklisted!)
- how about ‘raised in barns‘? It makes you think of a large and airy space, doesn’t it? In reality it means nothing, as all meat chickens live in barns (which are really just huge crowded sheds).
- ‘free to roam’? This means nothing, either, as manufacturers claim this even when they’re raising chickens in massive sheds. The ACCC won a case against Baiada in 2013 for claiming this.
- ‘cage free’ chicken meat? Australian standards prohibit meat chickens from being raised in cages anyway.
- ‘no added hormones’? That just means that the manufacturer is abiding by Australian standards (as they’re supposed to!), which don’t allow chickens to be fed growth hormones in Australia, or the use of antibiotics to promote growth in chickens
- ‘processed chemical free’ has nothing to do with the way the chicken is raised. This is about the way the meat is processed, so it doesn’t affect animal welfare at all (although it is still important to look for)
- ‘organic free range’ is actually a legitimate term, as all organic chickens are also free range. However, make sure that you can see the organic certifications.
I can’t say this enough – you absolutely have to be able to see either free range or organic certifications before you can be sure that you’re getting meat or eggs from higher welfare chickens. If you can’t see the logos, don’t believe the hype.
So what’s the verdict on ethical chicken and ethical eggs in Australia?
Unlike beef, which has great standards in Australia even if you’re buying ordinary supermarket beef, the poor chickens don’t. The answer here is to make sure that you’re buying free range chickens and eggs at the very least. Look for the free range logos. If you can afford it, buy organic. And if you can’t afford it, why not have a couple of meat free meals each week and use the savings to buy higher welfare chicken. Even my meat-loving family are happy with this arrangement now.
I’ve got really good over the years at getting every last scrap of goodness out of a chicken. I buy whole organic chickens. I roast them, and use every last scrap. I save the bones, freeze them, and when I’ve got a few carcases, I roast the bones off again for flavour and use them for stock. It makes the best chicken soup ever.
If I can’t get hold of whole organic chickens, and it does require me either buying online or making a special trip to an organic butcher, I buy free range certified chicken.
What’s your thoughts on chicken and eggs in Australia? Do you buy conventional chickens, or do you seek out higher welfare produce?
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