Just one in five consumers feel sure free-range claims stack up.
When you think of free-range chooks, what do you picture?
Our latest survey found most consumers think free range should mean the birds spend most of their days roaming outside in small flocks. The majority reckon a free-range flock should number between 500 and 1500 hens.
However, the loose definition of “free range” means the reality can be vastly different.
Your free-range eggs may have been laid by a small flock of frolicking hens. But the majority of big egg brands on the market come from flocks of at least 4000. Mainland Poultry, the name behind the Farmer Brown and Woodland brands, said its free-range flocks number between 4000 and 8000 hens (see our “Free-range eggs” table).
Free-range chooks raised for meat can come from much larger flocks of close to 40,000. A free-range operation to be opened by Van Den Brink Poultry, which sells the Brinks, and George and Jo’s chicken brands, will have 360,000 chooks housed in 10 sheds of 36,000 each.
Other producers have sheds with similar numbers of birds (see our “Free-range chicken” table). Tegel, the biggest producer of poultry meat, has flocks of between 10,000 and 35,000.
Bostock Brothers was the only free-range chicken meat producer that farmed smaller flocks of between 2500 and 6000 birds.
Inghams Enterprises, which sells Waitoa Free Range Chicken, declined to tell us its numbers, stating “there is little relevance in flock size”. Countdown and Foodstuffs also declined to provide this information for their store-brand chooks.
Fifty-three percent of egg purchasers are willing to pay the free-range premium, buying free-range eggs most or all of the time; for 28%, free range is the only option they pick. When it comes to chicken meat, our survey found nearly four in 10 bought free range regularly; 12% always opted for free-range chooks.
Growing consumer demand is seeing the industry up its investment in free-range operations with more brands on shop shelves. However, while companies are keen to plump up their free-range credentials, consumer trust in claims remains low.
Just one in five shoppers felt sure goods labelled as “free range” met their expectations of what free range should mean, unchanged since our 2017 survey.
Lack of a clear definition of free range, as well as high-profile cases of fake free-range eggs being sold, are likely to be affecting consumer trust (see “Fake free range”).
The code of welfare for layer hens states free-range chooks must have access to an outdoor range area. The outdoor stocking density is capped at 2500 birds per hectare – that’s one hen per 4m2 – but the code doesn’t set a maximum flock size.
The code of welfare for meat chickens is less demanding. Rather than limit flock size, the code leaves it up to farmers “to manage stocking density according to the welfare needs of the chickens”. Ten hens per m2 is listed as the example indicator for outdoor stocking rates.
Why does flock size matter? It’s a big factor in determining whether hens actually get out of the shed and are free to range.
Lack of definition in the codes means that while chooks could venture outside, whether they do so or stay in the barn, will be influenced by how many there are and how easy it is for them to access the range area.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission tells egg farmers, “flock size largely determines the ability of each hen to access an outdoor range. As larger flock sizes must be kept in larger barns, this means that a hen must travel further and navigate past more unfamiliar hens, to reach an open side or pop hole”.
In sheds housing big flocks, there’s no guarantee all the birds will find their way to a pop hole to head outside. In reality, the chook’s experience could be little different from that of a bird raised in a barn with no outdoor access.
When it comes to taste and quality, 59% of consumers who buy free-range eggs rated them as tasting better than other eggs, while 63% reckoned they were also better quality. The majority (53%) who bought free-range chicken thought it also tasted better; 56% considered it was better quality meat.
Egg prices have been on the rise in the past year. According to the industry, prices are going up as farmers make the switch away from battery cages. These cages are being phased out and must be removed from production by 1 January 2023.
Battery cages have allowed eggs to be sold cheaply but it’s been at the expense of animal welfare. Statistics NZ data show egg prices dropped rapidly during the time battery cages were being used for the bulk of egg production.
Latest available figures show 24 farms have yet to phase out the cages. About 1.6 million hens – 45% of the total flock – remained in battery cages in December 2018.
The case is the second in recent years involving sales of fake free-range eggs. In 2014, Northland egg farmer John Garnett was convicted for falsely labelling cage eggs as free range or barn laid. Garnett sold close to 2.5 million fake free-range eggs, at an estimated value of $1 million, before he was found out.
In the wake of publicity about fake free-range products, the Egg Producers Federation this year introduced a voluntary egg stamping programme. Producers that sign up mark their eggs with a farm identification number and a code showing how their chooks were farmed:
Egg stamp numbers can be searched on tracemyegg.co.nz, which provides details of the farm where the eggs came from. However, the website doesn’t include data on flock size – information that would be useful for consumers buying free range.