Pastured eggs are becoming the latest consumer trend as small-scale producers who regularly move their chickens to fresh paddocks pitch themselves as being more than free range.
A decision by state and territory governments to allow up to 10,000 hens per hectare in free-range egg production has prompted criticism from smaller producers, who say they are being forced to choose another definition for their type of farming.
Producers who run their chickens at low density in mobile houses are labelling their product as “pastured eggs” to differentiate themselves from the more densely farmed, larger commercial companies.
Lee McCosker, who runs a licensing and accreditation company called Pasture Raised on Open Fields (PROOF), has been highly critical of the move to allow high-density egg production to still be referred to as free range.
“They [larger egg producers] fought hard for the right to use the definition free range,” Ms McCosker said.
“In my opinion, they stole it from those who developed and deserved to use it.”
Consumer affairs ministers announced they had agreed on a new information standard for free range in March, after years of discussion about the need for guidelines. The standard will come into effect by March next year.
Eggs labelled free range will need to be laid by chickens with “meaningful and regular access to the outdoors”, and there will be a ceiling on outdoor stocking density of 10,000 hens to the hectare — or one bird per square metre
Many producers, along with consumer group Choice, had argued the density should be capped at the lower number of 1500 hens per hectare.
“It has condemned free range to be just a supermarket term,” Ms McCosker said.
“The powers-that-be have determined the supermarkets are more deserving of the term free range than our little family farms, and in the process, they have destroyed the integrity of the term free range.”
Ruling brings clarity to egg industry
But Dion Andary — whose family owns South Australia’s largest free-range egg company, Days Eggs — said the decision had at last provided clarity in an industry that had operated under a cloud of uncertainty for years.
“We were relieved because we had already committed to large volume production,” he said.
“It would have meant, if the decision had gone the other way, the everyday consumer would have been paying a heck of a lot more for free range eggs.”
Mr Andary said the current national shortage of free range eggs was due in part to the uncertainty the industry had faced because of the lack of a standard definition.
At his free range farm at Port Germein, Mr Andary runs large sheds housing up to 30,000 birds at a maximum density of 10,000 per hectare.
‘Insatiable’ demand for pastured eggs from consumers
Hundreds of egg producers are now running their egg layers in small mobile units that can be moved regularly to fresh pasture. Chickens are free to roam large, often unfenced, areas and peck around in green grass.
Graham and Kathy Barrett, from Kangaroo Island, were among the country’s first to run their 4000 layers on pasture in mobile chicken coops that Mr Barrett designed in the late 1990s.
It is labour-intensive and they “couldn’t do it without the use of maremmas” — the large white guardian dogs that protect the chickens from predators such as eagles, crows and feral cats.
Ms Barrett lobbied hard to establish the standard definition for free range at just 1500 hens per hectare, and she was “bitterly disappointed, but not surprised”, at the recent decision.
“There’s the lower stocking of 1,500 hens per hectare or less,” she said.
“And then, anything above that needs to be called something else.”
She agreed there could be a marketing edge for those who can claim their hens are “run on pasture” but said the cost to small producers to change and advertise was “quite onerous”.
Pastured eggs are usually up to four times the price of caged chicken egg, between $6 and $12 a dozen, but Ms Barrett said the demand was insatiable.