Eggs, lies and statistical improbabilities

September 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

Spotted this article on the Sydney Morning Herald website today – apparently there are more free-range eggs sold in Australia than there are free-range hens to lay them …

On one hand, it’s nice that the poultry industry realises that consumers are increasingly unhappy about the way they do things. Pity that greenwashing is their first response! (Interestingly, a New Zealand research organisation has recently developed a test for telling eggs from different production systems apart, using an isotope analysis technique. So hopefully this type of deception’s days are numbered.)

What is just as disturbing is what passes for ‘free-range’ in the industry’s opinion. 14 birds per square metre (measure out a 1 x 1 m space on your floor and imagine 14 hens crowded into that) and “… access to an outdoor range.” Are you imagining a green paddock, and flocks of hens walking around on the grass, scritching, eating, flapping their wings, sunning themselves etc etc? Of course you are. That’s what it should mean. In practice, this means a strip of grass outside an enclosed barn, with maybe one or two small portholes to give “access” to the outside world. It says nothing about how often the popholes are opened OR how high up the inside walls they are OR what time of day (or night) they’re opened OR how likely it is that birds which have never even seen the outside world are to try and walk through the wall and go outside in the first place. And it also doesn’t say anything about maintaining the grass, or making sure that the side the birds can come out actually gets sunshine on it at some point. Or that it isn’t next to noisy, frightening machinery … the list of weasel ways around genuinely offering your birds free-range access is virtually endless. (Read Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and/or In Defense of Food and Hattie Ellis’s Planet Chicken (you should read them anyway!), or click this link to pay a visit to the Compassion in World Farming website.) (Probably not just before a meal though.)

Free-range is such a misleadingly applied term that we’d suggest you always go for certified organic free-range eggs (like Biogro in NZ). Even if you’re not worried about chemicals in food production or GM, the strict animal welfare aspects of organic growing mean that you can be more certain that the hens have genuinely been able to range freely. Organic costs more, but that premium helps organic farmers afford to look after their animals and their land properly. Think of it as a tithe – your part in overthrowing the factory farming model!

Better still – get your own chooks!

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