The surge in interest in free range eggs this year suggests many consumers feel there's an undeniable difference between hens who are free to forage over expansive tracts of regularly rotated land, and those who are given "access" to a fixed space that could be as small as one square metre per bird.
However, under the new national definition of what constitutes free range eggs, no distinction is made - and small farms want consumers to know. Enter "pastured" free range.
Consumer group Choice tells SBS that they’ve noticed an increase in farms with no more than 1500 hens per hectare taking measures to distinguish themselves from larger, industralised farms that also conform to the new definition of no more than 10,000 birds per hectare.
“Pasture-raised is a response from the farming community to the ministers' decision to sign off on a standard of free range that didn’t meet consumer’s expectations,” Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey says.
“I think it’s disappointing that it’s come to this because the genuine free range farmers had built a brand and a great deal of equity and trust within the community around the credence claims of free range, and now to think that they have to change and come up with a completely new name because the industrialised producers hijacked the free range claim is really disappointing.”
State and federal consumer affairs ministers agreed in March that the national definition of free range would include farms where hens have "meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range" - a statement which Choice argues allows birds to remain in the barn as long as the door is open.
The experience of two pastured farmers
Liam Brokensha raises just four hens per hectare on his The Splendid Egg farm in South Australia. He has referred to his product as “pastured” since he added eggs to his business a year ago, and tells SBS it is important that consumers understand the distinction.
“There’s a difference between egg production where hens are free to roam and forage in open fields and paddocks versus being confined to the same single hectare of property for 365 days,” he says.
“The stocking density of what can be classified free-range is vastly different from what I think is people’s general assumption of what free range actually is," he says referring to the new definition.
Likewise, Natasha Harris and her husband Edward - whose 400 chickens produce their Guildford Grown Pastured Eggs in central Victoria - believe that pastured means far more than free range.
"We call our eggs pastured eggs because our chickens are out grazing on pasture all the time," Natasha tells SBS.
"They live in a caravan that is moved at least a couple of times a week, preferably every day. They follow our cow heard along spreading the manure as they go and sanitising the pasture."
Instead of keeping her birds on one fixed tract of land, Natasha continually moves them to fresh grounds to ensure she farms in a sustainable way that reflects nature.
She explains, "what we're all about with pastured eggs is to try to mimic nature to get animals to do what they love doing and express themselves naturally to serve the purpose for us as a farmer and the ecology we're trying to improve and heal by the methods that we try to use."
Do consumers care?
After free range was given its new national definition in March, Choice responded with a free app designed to help consumers identify the stocking density each egg-producing farm.
Mr Godfrey tells SBS that it has been downloaded more than 42,000 times to date and has been used to scan in excess of 600,000 egg cartons, demonstrating that there is indeed consumer interest in egg production.
Earlier this year, the then Small Business Minister Kelly O'Dwyer said she was satisfied with the maximum 10,000 per hectare stocking density of free range birds and told news.com.au "animal welfare issues relating to free range eggs will be considered as part of the review of the model code for poultry by Agriculture Ministers with public consultation beginning in September 2016".
A spokesperson for Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce tells SBS, "The development of the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry is an important initiative of all governments and poultry industries, and are intended form the basis for developing consistent and effective legislation and enforcement across Australia by state and territory governments."
The new standard definition of free range agreed to in March is expected to come into full effect by early next year.