Australians care about animals and their welfare; as a nation, we are progressively seeking to be educated consumers in the products we buy. With the increase in shoppers choosing cage-free and free-range eggs, it’s clear the welfare of egg-laying hens is of concern to many. However, the abundance of different labels adorning egg cartons means choosing higher welfare eggs can be a confusing endeavour. Currently, there are no nationally agreed definitions for product labelling in Australia, except for eggs sold in cartons where the label often reflects the housing system. While this is a good step, there are still ambiguous and potentially misleading terms being used on egg cartons.

What does welfare look like for layer hens raised to RSPCA Standards?

Egg-laying hens are naturally social and inquisitive birds. They need freedom to move around, spread and flap their wings, a nest in which to lay their eggs, places to perch and areas to dust bathe in order to remain happy and healthy. Choosing RSPCA Approved eggs is one way to make sure you are buying certified higher welfare eggs from either cage-free or free-range hens.

Hens on farms with the RSPCA Approved certification live in enriched environments that are either fully indoors or indoors with outdoor access, and which are assessed regularly to make sure the RSPCA Standard is met. Here at the RSPCA, we know better welfare can be achieved in indoor barns with proper provisions for space, good lighting, secluded nest boxes and enrichment such as litter for dustbathing and perches for roosting. Where hens are given access to the outdoors (free range), that outdoor range needs to be a quality environment with shaded areas and vegetation to encourage the hens to venture outside and explore. Whether your RSPCA Approved eggs have come from barn or free-range hens, you can be sure that the farms have met the RSPCA’s detailed animal welfare Standard for hens and are regularly assessed.

But what about the many other labels found on egg cartons? Here is how to recognise what they really mean:

Labelling Terms Cracked

In Australia, eggs sold in the carton should be labelled according to the farming system that produced them (cage, barn, free range). Free-range eggs are required to include the outdoor stocking density (space allowance) on their cartons; however, this alone is not necessarily a conclusive indicator of higher welfare.

Cage Eggs: The vast majority of cage eggs come from layer hens confined to battery cages in which each hen has less space than the size of an A4 piece of paper. The RSPCA considers the ongoing use of barren battery cages as the gravest animal welfare issue in Australia today, in terms of the number of animals affected and how severely their welfare is compromised. Hens in battery cages suffer throughout their lives, unable to express their natural behaviours and enduring chronic health conditions such as osteoporosis due to their lack of exercise, all whilst standing on bare wire. Labels you might see on egg cartons such as ‘hen coops’ and ‘enriched colony reared’ give the romanticised impression of an idyllic country life for hens. However, they are simply alternative labels for cage eggs from conventional cage systems (hen coop) or furnished cage systems (enriched colony reared). Furnished cages provide more space and some enrichment for layer hens, however no cage system can fully cater for a hen’s physical and behavioural needs.

Cage-Free/Barn-Laid Eggs: ‘Cage-free’ and ‘barn-laid’ are different labels for essentially the same type of farming system. Cage-free and barn-laid eggs are from hens that are kept in large sheds with room to move around and nest boxes in which to lay their eggs. In these large sheds, hens can move on the floor, or venture up and down via different levels (aviary or multi-tier systems). Not all barns have enrichment or quality litter, which is why it’s important to ask your favourite egg brand how the hens are kept inside the shed or look for a reputable third-party certification with detailed publicly available standards that describes the housing system – like RSPCA Approved. A well-managed barn system is a very good alternative to a cage system and provides hens with added protection from the elements, predators and disease transmission.

Free-Range Eggs: Hens in free-range systems are provided with access to outdoor areas during daylight hours (weather permitting) and spend their nights in barns/sheds with nest boxes in which to lay their eggs in the morning. The free-range label is often interpreted to be the best option for welfare, but it’s important to note that having outdoor access alone is not the only thing to look out for. A good free-range outdoor area should have vegetation for foraging and plenty of shelter to encourage hens to feel protected and venture outside, however there is no legal requirement for these to be provided. Outdoor stocking densities (space allowance) of up to 10,000 birds per hectare are allowed. There is no requirement by law for free-range farms to be audited to ensure they are adhering to the legal minimums. Even on free-range farms, hens may still spend most of their time indoors, so the quality of the indoor environment is just as important, if not more so, and this is often overlooked. This is where asking the brand for more information about the housing system can be useful, or alternatively, looking for third party certification.

Other labels that you might see on free-range eggs are certified organic – hens raised on an organic diet free from chemicals and antibiotics with access to outdoor areas and certified by an organic certification program – and pasture raised – from hens who have access to pastures and live in smaller caravans which are moved about the paddock.

Finally, you may have noticed some common phrases popping up on egg cartons such as ‘natural living’, ‘farm fresh’,no de-beaking’ and ‘Australian grown’ that give the illusion of eggs coming from a different type of farming system. These are buzzwords and not indicative of how the hen lived or the conditions on farm. All whole eggs sold in cartons in Australia are laid in Australia and layer hens are not de-beaked (i.e. have their whole beak removed) in any system although beak trimming (removing the tip of the beak) to control severe feather pecking is allowed.

When it comes to farm animal welfare, egg buyers are influential with the choices they make. Each purchase of an animal product is a vote for the system that produced it. Your choices matter and you have the power to speak up for layer hens when you purchase higher welfare eggs like cage-free, free-range and RSPCA Approved and help support Aussie farmers in giving curious and clucky hens a better life. 

Interested in reading more? How you can support a future of higher welfare farming or 4 good reasons to choose Farmer Rod’s eggs