When you think of free range hens - what do you picture? Hens surrounded by green grass, dust bathing with space to roam?
This could not be further from the truth.
Let’s start with male chicks in the egg industry. Males are considered an unwanted by-product of the egg industry, as they don’t lay eggs. So at just one day old they are thrown into a giant blender and macerated while fully conscious.
The females escape live maceration, but their fate isn’t any better. They’ll be transported to a so-called free range farm where they will stay until they die onsite or no longer lay enough eggs to be considered worthy of keeping alive.
And how much space do these hens have?
The Federal Government’s free-range egg standard came into force in April 2018, allowing animal agribusiness facilities to pack up to 10,000 hens into one hectare, leaving just one square metre of room for each bird. The standard does not specify that hens must actually go outside to be considered free range: in fact as long as they're provided access to the outdoors, the free range label still applies.
The outdoor space may not provide any shade or shelter from predators, or there may be so few openings on the side of sheds, some hens may never get close enough to an exit to venture outdoors. Drone footage from free range facilities in NSW have shown dry open spaces not used by fearful hens where no grass or covering is provided and with very few openings in the sheds. Footage has also shown that often the doors are never opened to provide outside access and this can be for a variety of reasons- worming, age of hens, suspected weather, or perhaps, dare I say, a day off for farm hands.
Inside these industrialised sheds the floor is often not cleaned until the hens are sent to slaughter, meaning faeces will build up over months. As a result of the ammonia, hens often develop breast blister and “bumble foot”.
The bar has been set so low for a free range hen that when consumers find out the truth, many are unlikely to feel reassured by the label. And if you think that the lives of free-range hens sounds horrific - the lives of chickens in the meat industry are arguably worse.
For meat chickens, there is no legal definition of the term ‘free range’ and standards can vary enormously. Free range broiler chickens are usually the same genetic freaks as factory farmed chickens: they are bred to grow at an unnatural rate, often collapsing under their own body weight. Experts say that meat chickens are in chronic pain for the last days of their lives.
For birds raised under the Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia standards, there can be approximately 15 birds living on floor the size of a small card table.
And while these chickens are expected to have eight hours' access to the outdoors, due to the cramped conditions, it can be difficult for them to make their way outdoors and once they reach a weight where it is painful for them to walk- outdoor access is simply impossible.
When these young birds reach 'slaughter weight', chicken catchers will grab them by their legs, stuff them into crates, and transport them to the slaughterhouse. Here they will be gassed, or dipped into an electrified bath before their throats are cut. If any chickens miss the stun bath, they face the blade fully conscious and ultimately drown in scalding water. There are no free range slaughterhouses. All farmed animals meet the same brutal and terrifying end.
This is the horrifying reality behind the "free range” label. To put it simply “Free Range” is a fraud. It has to be said- if you buy free range anything, you are being duped. There’s no such thing as an ethical egg or ethical animal flesh.