Free-range claims

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.

Free-range credentials

Supermarket sales of free-range eggs have jumped 18% in the past two years, rising to $98 million in 2018. Free-range chicken meat sales are also growing.

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”).

Free-range eggs

Free-range chicken

Minimum standards

Basic requirements for free-range chooks are set in codes developed under the Animal Welfare Act.

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.

Survey findings






The taste test

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.

Price of eggs

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.


Layer hen housing systems: what’s provided


Fake free range

Last year, the Commerce Commission filed court proceedings against an Auckland egg farmer alleging he sold millions of caged eggs as free range.

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:

  • a “CG” code stands for cage
  • CL for colony cage
  • BN for barn
  • FR for free range
  • OR for organic.

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.

Member comments

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Chris O.
11 Nov 2019
Really Free Range

I grew up on a farm where we had a small flock of chooks that roamed the paddocks, spent the day scratching up cow pats for worms and insects, and pecking grasses and seeds. They were also fed some mash mixed up with curds from left over milk from the cow. The eggs were much nicer than shop bought ones; due to their diet no doubt. Yes they had a pecking order, but the ones at the bottom were able to maintain an acceptable distance and thus not "bullied". They were kept in their run until mid-day or so when they had laid (most of!) their eggs. Anyone doing a taste test would need to include some eggs from these conditions to make a legitimate comparison.
I accept that this bears no relationship to commercial chook farming, which has to be more efficient than that. There are some farmers who run small flocks of chooks in arks that they tow around behind the tractor and release them each afternoon. These are a lot closer to actual free range. So lets only allow the term "Free Range" to be used on these chooks that actually do spent at least half their time free, roaming large new areas of fresh grass and other forage. Letting thousands of them out into the same small grass area for a short time from a fixed shed simply does not cut it. They need to be called some other more appropriate name. "Imprisoned with exercise yard" perhaps? Cheers! Chris

Neil A.
25 Oct 2019
Psychology wins!

Blind tasting tests always show that eggs and chicken meat taste the same regardless of their source (unless the chooks have been fed fishy things!).
Subjective views such as "lovely dark yellow" yolks (surely much better?) and "nice hard shells'" (surely a sign of health and well-being?) are simply the result of the feed constituents. Meat (muscle fibres) will be tender or chewy depending on the chooks' living environment. 'Organic' and 'free range' labels are purely expectations of the consumer.
I suspect very few, if any, Consumer members have ever raised chooks for either eggs or meat.
I could change the egg yolks' colour almost overnight by feeding the twenty or so chooks (hen house overnight and then grazing the paddock day time) carrot peelings and cast offs from the kitchen. Beetroot peelings produced some really strange yolk colours indeed!
Killing one of these chooks for dinner produced remarkably chewy and strong flavoured meat. Nothing like the supermarket products we are used to today.

Yet, the chooks were free ranging and fed ordinary food scraps (no meat though, chickens are omnivorous!) on top of what they foraged for in the paddock. Very organic conditions one might say.

Once you have kept 20 or more chooks you will soon discover they are quite brutal in their flocks, only the strong survive. The term 'hen-pecked' is very very real; weak chooks will be pecked to death by the others. Looking after large flocks to avoid such things takes vast spaces. (Would you live near a vast open chook farm with its noises and smelly shit production? - I think not... NIMBY)

Cheap eggs and chook meat production is the result of consumer demand for consistently shaped/coloured eggs and tender meat.
Though, one could go back to the '50s and '60s when Roast Chicken was a treat and eggs went in and out of season!

Today, consumers simply cannot understand the complexities of the mass-production systems which give them very cheap products, every day all year round.
I'd suggest that if consumers want 'real' eggs/meat/veges they go out into the country side and find growers/farmers they can talk to and see the produce in the field. They can then pay the price at the door.

It's a cop out for these people to stand in the air-conditioned supermarket and declaim that the foods on sale are not really organic or not really free-range.

Survey data:
What is the margin of error?

Your graphs show results from about 1000 people. Were these results from a survey of the 4.5 million population in NZ or from your own Consumer members?
Question:
1. How would the normal Kiwi know what number of chickens should be in a flock? - this is a silly question to ask.
2. Expectations about Free Range:
What were the respondents expectations in the first place?
3. The results speak for themselves. Respondents can clearly be lead by their noses
4. 49% seem not to be bothered about the free-range thing
5. 62% seem not be bothered about the free-range thing .

So, it seems maybe 50% of your members are not truly bothered about the Free-range/organic thing.

The rest of of the population (95% versus 5% Consumer Members?) are clearly happy with cheap, consistent eggs and meat quality. If not not sales would not be so good.

Why is so much news given to the very few who complain that chickens are not happy?
Has anyone measured a chicken's happiness? !)
Neil

Sandra H
26 Oct 2019
On the other hand...

You may not be able to measure a chicken's happiness, but you can detect when they are unhappy. All animals that live in social groups such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats and chickens have an hierarchy of dominant to least dominant. Heaven help you if you put a cow through a cow shed ahead of a more dominant animal. The reason you see chickens kill each other more frequently than horses or cattle killing each other is SPACE. Social animals require space to live harmoniously. I feel betrayed by these so called free range companies. As a child in the 1960s, chicken was a treat food except when visiting several lots of relatives who raised their own chooks. I also have family currently free range farming pigs and chooks and the reported "aggression" of these animals is non-existent as they genuinely spend their days roaming paddocks, dust bathing or mud bathing as they prefer. The houses are transportable and towed from paddock to paddock by tractor. I have also kept chooks myself and have never had one animal injured by another, let alone killed, simply because they have sufficient space. I thought free range eggs and chickens for meat were supplied by other producers like my family. I'm disgusted with the whole rip-off and have bought my last poultry or pork product until I can feel confident of an ethical animal welfare centered source.

Sandra

Anne S.
09 Nov 2019
Balance

I agree Neil.
I am troubled that Consumer publishes, as apparently useful information, that people who buy “Free range” products, whatever that means, agree they taste better. Really?

Glenn B.
09 Nov 2019
defending the indefensible...

This is a classic illustration of never under-estimating mankind's ingenuity at justifying any position that happens to suit his own selfish interests.

The writer is, or pretends to be, unaware of the vast research literature assessing the happiness of chickens. Indeed, it's precisely that work which motivated the mass public reaction against battery hen farming. Having to ask that question indicates extreme laziness; failing to understand the answer indicates an extreme ethical deficiency.

David C.
25 Oct 2019
The tip of a disclosure iceberg

I wonder if the food producers fully realise, or are even prepared to discuss, just how damaging to their prosperity is the behaviour of a few of their number who are slipshod, deceptive or outright liars.

Because there are producers who do these things, and there is no guaranteed assurance of good behaviour, we consumers are forced to regard all producers as suspect and not deserving of a premium price.

This is tough on the good firms, but as the days of personally knowing the provenance of our food are long gone, real consumer assurance is required - but preferably not by an ineffective bureaucracy that adds costs, such as the one that surrounds our building industry.

How do grown-ups, like the Scandinavians, address food provenance?

Brendan & Dannielle L.
25 Oct 2019
Cruel beak trimming is a factor too

I only buy the 3 brands (e.g. Frenz) that I know of that do NOT practice 'beak-trimming' (usually burning the nerve-filled tip off the beak) - it is not necessary for chickens that are not crammed in to tiny enclosures. It would be very helpful if this information was included in the table.

Chris L.
25 Oct 2019
Agreed

Yes, that should definitely be included in these tables.

Marita B.
09 Nov 2019
Beak trimming

Brendan, what are the other two brands?