Look at this. Proper, free-range chickens. Chickens that are free to not only walk a step or two, but to peck at grass, to scratch in the dirt, to forage for bugs. Perhaps that’s why the yolks of my eggs are strikingly deep gold in colour and the whites super thick and the flavour phenomenally rich.
When you think of free range, you think of birds like this, right? Bup bah. Wrong. Well, that’s wrong now the Australian Egg Corporation thinks it’s okay to have 20,000 birds per hectare (10,000 square metres). That’s right, two birds per square metre, an amount it’d be hard to walk through without actually treading on a chook.
What’s crazy about this is that consumers really want labels they can trust, but the government wants industry to come up with their own standards. So the small but committed Free Range Egg and Poultry Association thinks 1,500 birds is the maximum you should have per hectare, but the egg industry’s national body doesn’t see animal welfare as an issue, even at much higher rates. With a maximum stocking rate FOURTEEN TIMES AS HIGH, the cynic might suggest that the Egg Corporation sees “free-range” as a marketing concern. Instead of measuring how many metres per bird, it’s how many birds per metre. Having seen the swing in consumer sentiment, and the premium some people are willing to pay for what they see as more ethical eggs, perhaps the Egg Corporation wants more traditional farmers to get a piece of the action, without putting in the same effort as those who have already set the standards. Critics might call this the equivalent of "green-washing" for chooks.
Free range written on eggs, like free range for pork, is to many consumers a relevant label that helps define how they shop. A lot of people, especially those who’ve smelt a factory chicken farm or realised how little the birds can express their instincts, want to buy from growers where the welfare and contentment of the livestock is taken seriously. Very few of those who see 20,000 birds on a hectare of land would consider the animals free at all. But you probably won’t see these farms. Like feedlots for cattle, most of these operations are removed from the public eye because the public wouldn’t like what they see.
What I see from my window is a chook scratching through cow poo. Quietly seeking out bugs, helping to spread fertiliser on the paddock, and laying the best bum nuts money can’t buy.