Saturday, October 15, 2011

Free Range Chickens

I record 7.30 NSW on ABC 24 when it is broadcast. I also record Landline on ABC1 when it is broadcast. I watch them later at my convenience. This week both had stories on chickens, chooks, hens or fowl. Whatever, but specifically about the way the are kept when they are used to produce commercial quantities of eggs.

If you don't know how chickens are kept when they aren't free range, then you damn well ought to find out. If you don't buy free range eggs, then you damn well ought to.

We buy our free range eggs from the el cheapo Asian green grocer. They cost about $2 less than you pay for them in the supermarket. The first time I checked, they came from a free range egg farm in South Gippsland. I checked the place on the net and it seemed legit. Now they come from Local Farms. I really ought to check that out too.

Truth in labelling is quite topical. Can I trust that a dozen eggs from the el cheapo green grocer are really free range? Of course I can. I live in Australia and nothing dodgy with labelling happens here!

In NSW there is a case before the courts regarding what is really free range. I have an image of free range as being chooks in a paddock of grass pecking away, scratching away and occasionally bothering each other. They lay their eggs under bushes and sometimes where they roost.

People who care about animals are suggesting free range should be around 700 birds per hectare. The egg producers association, the board being mainly made up of large volume egg producers, suggest that 20,000 birds per hectare is appropriate. I have not mistyped the numbers. 700 as against 20,000. Small business free range egg producers agree with the animal welfare folk's number.

The egg producer's spinner was one of the worst I have ever seen. A skilled spinner would have convinced a few people and ameliorated the argument a little. This one just made me angrier and angrier. I should go back and check the programmes and transcripts and at least give the reporter from 7.30 NSW a name and her due. She was good.

The clincher for me was when the words 'dust bowl' were mentioned. 20,000 free range hens on one hectare, how could it be anything else but a dust bowl.

Twenty thousand chickens on one hectare is not free range in the public's eyes. I am happy if you can convince me otherwise.

The outcome from the court case will be interesting. If the court agrees twenty thousand is an ok figure, then I will suggest there is little point in buying free range eggs.

Have I convinced you yet to only buy free range eggs and free range hen meat? Try this then.

I have heard of debeaking. The spinner likened it to cutting off a fingernail. The animal rights person said that there are useful nerve endings in the beaks. I don't think it was spelt out in the shows, but I guess birds are debeaked to stop them inflicting damage when they attack each other. They readily attack each other when they are stifled in close quarters and can barely move. I'd reckon debeaking would be on You Tube. I am not going to check because I don't want to see the debeaking machine in action again. Once was enough.

I am just another latte drinking inner city greenie complaining about honest farmers trying to make a living who really care for their animals on an individual basis. Or am I? I grew up on a farm. My father wasn't a bad man and did not deliberately mistreat animals, but I know what went on at farms in the sixties and seventies. It was not nice.

Free range chickens must be exactly as we imagine them. If that mean we pay more, then so be it. Here is a link, put solely here so that what I have written may be picked up.


  1. I'm very suspicious about "free range" claims. The RSPCA don't have a great track record either on what is or isn't a morally okay choice of dead animal. Big businesses and small business owners alike have their employees who like to brag about how much money they make by relabelling food. Nonetheless, I buy my free range eggs from the big chain in the hope that if there was a con going on someone would sooner or later make it known and the chain would bow to public opinion.
    I do confess our doggies' chicken wings come from the poultry shop - not just because they are cheaper but also because they are easier to buy.
    I've seen the inside of a commercial piggery, and the conditions are pretty good. What I haven't seen is where the little porkers are bred before they get to the feed lots. As I don't eat pork this doesn't really affect me directly.
    Mulesing is a big issue - quite cruel but necessary. Maybe there is a kinder way to achieve the same outcome for the little lambs.
    But chooks, the whole chook thing is disgusting. Happily, the cage eggs section at the supermarket is shrinking while the free range section is growing.

  2. PS Once - but only once - have I seen a menu which claimed all chicken used was free range. It's a start.

  3. I have proper free range eggs a lot of the time as they come from Dad's chooks that roam around the farm. I've seen one sort of de-beaking, when they're just out of the egg they burn the tip off the beak on a hot metal thing, so it renders it flat and not like a weapon I guess.

    I try to buy free range and organic meat as much as I can, that's definitely my personal preference.

    One of my exes Uncle's owned a chicken far, the chooks were bred to go to the chicken company that starts with S that supplies lots of companies. They had to feed it a certain feed, laced with hormones no doubt as I have never seen chickens grow so fast in my life. They were kept in huge barns with controlled temperature, lighting etc. This also made them grow faster. I loved them when they were tiny yellow fuzz balls, no so much when they got bigger!

  4. *chicken farm!

  5. Poultry.
    Chickens are wonderful and funny and very rewarding to keep roaming on 10 acres and roosting in fox-proof sheds with straw filled laying boxes.

    Every supermarket carton that says 'free range' is a lie if it comes from PACE or any of the brands which also have cage eggs.
    The Weekly Times tells me that eggs can be called free range if there are only 1500 birds in a shed.
    no grass.
    no bugs or worms.
    a shed.
    Carry an egg carton in the car any time you do a weekend drive so you can take advantage of the many places (even on the road to Geelong, or Creswick) that have genuine ranging chooks eggs sold at the gate. Also
    Foodworks at Bacchus Marsh sells eggs that come from a farm whose chooks are visible from the Western Highway as you go over the Pentland Hills.
    Next time you buy a safeway cooked chook try not to think about the conveyor belt slaughter at Inghams factories.

  6. NQR sell a dozen 500 gram fresh farm eggs from Meggles Farm for a mere $1.89 much cheaper than other supermarkets and it has the Heart Fountation tick. Free range is nothing but a gimmick as far as i'm concerned an egg is an egg :-).

  7. Anonymous6:43 pm

    Why is it ok to be "necessarily" cruel to a lamb but not to a chicken? Why is the plight of sows and piglets not a concern if you don't eat pork? The fact is modern farming practices and thinking have reduced animals to products where the bottom line is the almighty dollar - farmers and corporations want to make high profits and consumers want cheap, plentiful food. To get either, food animals must live appalling lives where terrible cruelty is commonplace and sanctioned at most levels of society. If people really care about animal welfare then buying eggs or meat labeled 'free-range' and hoping for the best is not going to help much. Farmers and agribusinesses are not going to change their practices unless consumers demand it. And the only way to do that is to stop buying mass-produced meat or eggs. Yes, it requires effort and more expense but there are no halfway measures here - either ALL animals deserve to live happy, pain-free lives or none do. V.

  8. I'm suspicious about free range claims too. A few years ago free range was a specilaised market, then the chook farms were exposed on TV and people were outraged at the treatment and conditions these poor chooks were kept in. Many decided they would only buy free range eggs. Suddenly free range was available everywhere. I know that producing truly free range eggs is more costly, so how can there suddenly be that many free range farms/suppliers. I have a suspicion that if hens are allowed out of their cages for even just an hour or so a day, that's enough to be able to say they've ranged freely, a similar thing I believe goes on in the case of "barn laid" eggs.
    I do buy eggs labelled free range, but if they don't taste right, I won't buy that particular brand again. I know what free range tastes like.
    One of my children has chooks and provides me with eggs when there are some to spare. They are the best eggs I've ever tasted. T has only 3 chooks and they roam very freely over the entire garden which is about one and a half acres. I'm not sure how much that is in hectares.
    As far as I'm concerned 20,000 chooks per hectare is not free range.

  9. I too am suspicious FruitCake, and also about the RSPCA. We have been buying a pork that is promoted as being free range. I can't think of the name. Long something? I don't believe mulesing is necessary, and it is being phased out. There are good alternatives. The pubic needs to be in no doubt about free range. There are two take away places near my work and both use 'free range' chickens. Laconica or something like that.

    Fen, your uncle having a chicken farm must have been a while ago. I have seen a chicken farm thirty plus years ago, and it wasn't such a bad place for the chooks.

    Ann, I agree. Pace is to be avoided. Any co. as large as Ingham must be problematic. Clearly 1500 in a shed is not free range.

    Windsmoke, have you checked out Meggles Farm?

    Might have known V would pop up, haha. You may well be a few months younger than me, but you would remember when chicken was a luxury. It was a luxury because it was expensive. Now it is so cheap, because of the mass production of chicken meat. I don't like it and nor do I like the way are eggs are produced. I can't change the world, but maybe I can have a tiny impact. At home we use free range pork, and from what I hear about the company, the pigs live a pretty good life. When out, ok guilty as charged. Export animals excepted, compared to chickens, lamb and beef and dairy animals don't have bad lives. I certainly agree that we need to pay more for our meat, not only so that they are treated well in the production process, but also the cost needs to reflect the environmental impact of growing meat. It is up to us to persuade our governments that we want labelling honesty.

    River, I think you may well be right. How can free range eggs only cost $1 more? Proper free range must cost more than that. There is nothing better than an egg from a chook that has been free roaming in a garden, and don't care about the colour. White eggs are just as good as brown.

  10. Anonymous12:56 am

    I certainly do remember a time when chicken meat was a treat. When I was a young child, we ate rabbit more than chicken. Of course, this was before mixi and it was safe to eat wild rabbits.

    Compared to other countries, I do agree with you that non-export cows and sheep have better lives in Australia but that doesn't mean they don't suffer. Most people simply don't think about where their food comes from and what happens to the animals involved. Consequently, over the past 30-odd years, globally, farming has changed from small, family-run enterprises to large, multinational agribusinesses. Animals suffer, the environment suffers and human health suffers - think Mad Cow's disease and Bird/Swine Flu crossovers. I don't think large-scale factory farming of big animals happens in Australia yet but I can foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when it does. Afterall, it's already happened to chickens, pigs and fish. V.

  11. Once labelling correctly reflects the source, content and practices used in production, there will be an almighty 'free' market correction.

    People not only don't know, but don't WANT to know where their food comes from. Or at least want to believe it's all good. People would ask how we could bear to sell sheep at market for slaughter when we'd raised them on the farm. My response - how can you bear to eat them?? 'Oh, that's different ...' I fail to see how.

    AND ... try spending several hours digging maggots out of a flyblown sheep's bum, then treating it for pain/tissue damage etc - then I'll happily listen to arguments that some sort of intervention isn't necessary.

  12. V, what about in Japan? I suspect there aren't large scale farms, but many smaller, and perhaps subsidised farms.

    Red, you kind of answered your own question. It's different because people dissociate themselves from how food gets to their table. I am not up to speed on mulesing, but aren't there valid alternatives now? After all, it is to be banned here, isn't it?

  13. Anonymous6:35 pm

    Sorry, I don't know much about animal farming in Japan. Chicken/egg farming is mostly battery. Most cows live in paddocks in the warmer months but spend winters in sheds due to snow. Pigs may be kept in sheds year-round but I'm not sure. Farms are mostly small, family-run enterprises and there is less animal farming here than in Australia - probably because fish is more popular. V.