How free-range are your eggs?

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 05:00 18/08/2013
SEAN WILLIS/Fairfax NZ

Could you tell the difference between caged eggs and free range eggs? Everybody's Izakaya owner Mark Keddell gave the blind taste test a go.

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LAY OF THE LAND: Some 'free range' chickens aren't.

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Think of free-range eggs. Do you imagine a small flock of hens, perhaps with their own names, strutting contentedly around some rural paradise, a smiling farmer picking up their eggs? Or a giant mechanised shed filled with 5000 or more birds, some of which may never see the sunlight?

According to the Government, there is no such thing as free-range. "It's just a marketing term: it has no legal definition, no welfare conditions," explains the SPCA's Juliette Banks. "There is no substance to it, apart from what consumers have been misled to believe - and I mean that really strongly."

There is no formal or compulsory auditing system for free-range egg farming. There's a welfare code but breaches of it do not necessarily result in action. And there are three different independent accreditation schemes jostling for attention.

Free-range can mean a lot of things, but usually not the bucolic image most consumers would conjure up as they salve their conscience by paying a few extra dollars to buy our favourite protein.

"The term has been really hijacked by the industrial free-range guys," claims Rob Darby, who runs boutique free-range farmers Frenz. "As much as 70 per cent of free-range is bogus. If consumers knew those eggs they were buying were from hens that have never ever been outside, I think they would naturally and rightly be annoyed and feel ripped off."

CAGE OR COLONY?

If you've seen the photographs, you know that caged chickens lead fairly miserable lives. However, this aspect of the industry is in transition - farmers have 10 years to eradicate cages in favour of the more liberal "colony" farming system.

Cage farming is heavily regulated, and as one insider confides to the Star-Times, a caged bird might actually be happier than some free-range birds. Studies of mortality rates show it will almost certainly live longer. And legislation demands that a "barn" chicken - one which can move freely inside but not venture outside - actually gets more indoor space than a completely free-range chook.

Free-range birds are becoming more important for the industry. New Zealanders are among the world's biggest egg consumers: we eat about 224 each a year. Because we're the only country in the world free of the three most prevalent chicken diseases, there are no imports, so all those eggs come from 133 farms. Eighty-five of those are already entirely free-range - but they produce just 14 per cent of the eggs. The bulk of the rest are caged eggs, and just 3 per cent come from "barn" birds, the midway point between cage and free range.

Free-range egg sales have been rising at about one per cent a year for the past decade. And as the market grows, so does the competition. Darby, who reckons he was the first to commercialise free-range eggs in the early 1980s, sounds exasperated with the state of the industry. Angry? "I'm too old to be angry, man," he says.

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Darby believes the industry's trade body, the Egg Producers Federation, is captured by the interests of the big players (the federation chairman is the chief executive of New Zealand's biggest egg producer, Mainland) and the smaller farms have no chance of any influence.

"Over the last 30 years we have had words, but not a lot of pleasant ones. They have tried to run us out of town more than once," Darby says of his rivals. "These guys want to dictate, they are organised, they have more money than us small guys. For many small guys the only way to survive will be to cheat like the rest of them."

And here we get into what you consider free-range farming to be. Egg Producers Federation chief executive Michael Brooks says it's "unfortunate" there's debate over the meaning of the term. "I disagree there is no definition," he says. "I am unaware of any farm in New Zealand selling free-range that isn't allowing access to the outdoors."

New welfare standards introduced last December addressed free-range hens for the first time, including a maximum "stocking density" of 2500 hens per hectare, a maximum of nine per square metre indoors (it's seven per square metre for barn-only hens), rules around "popholes" (the chickens' doorways) and their opening times, and nesting boxes.

These standards were set independently of the industry but the Egg Producers Federation says it supports them. Darby, dismissively, says that's because the rules were based on what the big producers were already doing. For example, he says, allowing the popholes to be closed means that if a farmer suspects it may rain or it gets too muddy, they can close them in. "A lot of birds will be shut up and no-one will bother policing it."

With no maximum flock size, what's the biggest? Perhaps 8000, but everyone had a different number. "I have heard rumours," says Darby darkly. "Because there is no limit, you can guarantee sheds will only get bigger. Farmers know the more birds in a shed, the less likely they are to go out, it's natural for hens not to want to fight 10,000 other birds to get out the door. And that makes it more controlled for the farmers."

So do hens choose to not go outside on big farms? "It's a fair enough argument," says Hamish Sutherland of Mainland, the country's biggest free-range farmer, under their Woodlands brand. "But it's really the hens' choice if they prefer to stay inside. Do we get people inside barns ushering them all outside?"

Yes, some rogues have done that in order to shoot publicity photos, claims the SPCA's Banks. She says chickens, natural forest dwellers, want to get outside and behave naturally if the environment is right: space, shade and plenty of popholes to get out without fighting other birds. The SPCA thinks there should be limits on flock sizes on these grounds.

"What is the magic number?" says Brooks. "Who knows, but if you have the space for them to roam and you meet the stocking density, I would have to ask on what basis are you against it?"

He adds that bigger means cheaper: a 5000-bird shed can introduce automated egg collection. Surely, though, that's bad for the little guy? "That happens everywhere in all walks of farming," he says.

Darby believes running even 1000 chickens per hectare is unsustainable and will leave bare dirt inside two years - forcing them back indoors, especially in wet weather, and will risk the arrival of diseases.

But, says Sutherland, small flocks simply won't produce enough eggs to meet demand.

POULTRY PEOPLE

There are no mandatory qualifications to get into the layer-hen industry, although the federation says it has introduced NZQA tests and encourages newcomers to take them. One experienced chicken farmer says these newcomers "often aren't really poultry people. It's really difficult to manage free-range stocks - often you've got your least expert people doing the most difficult type of poultry farming: a recipe for disaster".

Cage-farming is undoubtedly easier: heat, light, water, temperature are all controlled, while outdoors you have the risks of bacteria. One government report shows mortality rates of 6.3 per cent for free-range chickens against around 3 per cent for caged chickens. But advocates of small free-range farming say the high-mortality argument is the "typical comment of the big producers" and says good stockmanship can even up the numbers.

Chickens can recognise up to 100 other birds and sort them into a mental and literal pecking order. Beyond that, they get stressed and potentially violent. In a wandering free-range flock of 8000, that could mean fights and even cannibalism. This is where "debeaking", or trimming, comes in; many farmers remove the beak tips of chicks to prevent fighting injuries in later life. And despite opposition from some free-range purists, the SPCA has accepted beak-trimming, saying it's a "very pragmatic" decision to ensure minimum harm for the birds.

Banks, who runs the SPCA's Bluetick free-range accreditation scheme, says she has "seen some pretty damn awful things" and has refused to accredit some larger farms, but won't name them. She describes the layer-hen industry as "pretty rogue" compared to, say, pork, because of its lack of self-regulation. And although the welfare code has legal power, "it's only actionable if they are caught".

So how are these standards enforced? It's hard to say. A Ministry for Primary Industries spokesman said the 1999 Animal Welfare Act meant New Zealand was "at the forefront . . . of progressive and comprehensive animal welfare law".

Layer-hen farmers have to comply with a risk-management plan, but welfare is just a "small paragraph" in that document, says SPCA inspector Alan Wilson. So although the ministry audits farms on those plans, the priority is checking production standards, hygiene and food safety, and while those inspectors are "trained to look for animal welfare breaches" there are no specific animal-welfare audits.

The ministry says it will investigate when it receives reports of breaches, but didn't readily have data on how many prosecutions it had mounted in that situation.

Wilson says there are no specific animal welfare audits and that poor animal welfare would be detected only if someone sent to audit the food safety side saw something amiss or there was a whistleblower. "It's reactive, rather than proactive," says Wilson.

Oddly, in this patchwork regulation, the Commerce Commission also has a role: when the Fair Trading Act is breached. For example, in 2001, Christchurch company Weedons was fined $35,000 and in 2002 Masterton poultry farmer William Stolte was fined $10,000 for claiming battery eggs were free-range.

But Sutherland says that with supermarkets setting their own rigorous standards and the ministry checking exports, "you are audited to death" and he believes the market force of customer awareness also plays a part.

"This may be wishful thinking, but if there are cowboys, they are fewer in number and getting squeezed out." Another farmer agrees: "The rogues have all been weeded out."

If you think all this is a tad confusing, it's time to consider the accreditation schemes and whether "free-range" on a label really means free-range.

There are three accreditation agencies: Bluetick, AsureQuality and BioGro; the latter two certifying eggs as organic. Between them they cover just a handful of farms. A fourth, South Australian-based Humane Choice, is coming.

Greg Roughan, editor of green consumer magazine Green Ideas, which studied the schemes, says the best option for ethical consumers is to buy accredited eggs: "The rules around free-range are really sloppy - so if you want to make a genuine effort the best thing you can do is choose eggs from one of those three labels."

Incidentally, there's no guarantee on eggs described as truly "organic" either, again because there's no clear definition of what organic means.

"It's an anomaly," says BioGro's audit manager, Jared Wright. "It really needs to be addressed. There are a lot of fraudulent organic claims in the market . . . it is absolutely happening."

And then to complicate things further, some farms like Frenz set their own standards (and there seems little love lost between Frenz and the SPCA). Michael Brooks of the Egg Producers Federation says the organisation is investigating its own, externally audited voluntary scheme. "They've been saying that for years," Darby, of Frenz, says dismissively.

WHERE EGGS REALLY COME FROM

Given some cage providers are totally within their rights to show a chicken nestling in straw with green fields in the background as their logo, the issue of branding and provenance is also vexed.

Some purists are upset that Woodlands, the biggest free-range brand, is owned by cage producer Mainland, although Brooks says he doesn't see why.

Mainland's Hamish Sutherland believes free-range buyers know what they are doing: "They are engaged knowledge-seekers and if you don't give them that knowledge, they choose someone else."

But it is noticeable how little provenance information appears on some egg boxes. Pam's homebrand free-range eggs sold by the New World chain, for example, simply lists the Pam's factory in Mt Roskill.

"Ultimately, it is only the most determined consumers who find out where eggs are coming from," concludes Hans Kriek, campaign director of Safe (Save Animals From Exploitation).

"Most people can't be bothered to ask questions, they have busy lives. But if they listen to all the spin, they think these chickens have the best lives in the world.

"Then when you see footage of some of these farms, it is really not what most people would have in mind."

In the end, though, are we as consumers guilty of self-delusion about where our food comes from?

Sutherland, who points out that Woodlands' website has a video walk-through of its farm, says: "We have an idealised view of how our food is produced and unfortunately people don't necessarily want to associate the reality with the storybook. They are not thinking about a little white fluffy chicken when they chomp into the KFC. And they get upset when they get a feather in it because it brings home that this was alive 10 days ago."

- Sunday Star Times

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