Not Very Free Range Eggs

I would like to make it clear the following contains my opinions only. For legal reasons, this is an abridged version of my original post.

I’ve bought Glenpark Woodland free range eggs for years. They weren’t the most expensive free range eggs out there, but I assumed that was because they were non-organic. They were certainly more expensive than Pams free range eggs, and seemed a bit more reliably free range.

Turns out, I’m a sucker for good marketing.

Glenpark Woodland eggs are not what I would call free range, and they’re also not a company I would ever want to support.

To start with, the Glenpark brand is owned by Mainland Poultry. Yes, the company that owns the largest battery hen sheds in the country, and is responsible for what in my eyes amounts to animal welfare abuses in the photos below.

Chicken from Mainland Poultry farm

Hen from Mainland Poultry farm

Mainland Poultry battery cages

Mainland Poultry is a company that is fine with hens being raised in battery cages, so its free range brand is about cash, not ethics. It’s no accident that their “free range” eggs are marketed under a completely different name – most customers who buy free range do so precisely because they want nothing to do with battery farming.

Are you ready to play chicken? Follow this trail:
Woodland Eggs are a Glenpark brand, which is run by the Natural Chicken Company, which is owned by Mainland Poultry. Even Dunedin chef Joanne Bain – and chefs normally have very good networks of suppliers and producers – found it difficult to establish where exactly the Woodland eggs were coming from.

Despite the fact that Mainland Poultry have set up a separate brand in order to capture the free range corner of the market, Glenpark Woodland eggs are not what I would describe as free range. When I imagine free range egg farms, I think of something very much like what the Woodland website describes:

From hens free to roam in the natural shelter of trees.

Woodland’s premium eggs are more than ordinary free range eggs. They are produced by hens which spend their days exploring, foraging and dust bathing under the shade and security of their own woodland environment. Situated in New Zealand’s beautiful South Island, the Glenpark Free Range Farm is 24 hectares of pasture, dotted with hundreds of evergreen and deciduous trees. It is from this idyllic environment that your Woodland free range eggs are gathered daily and distributed around New Zealand and overseas.

It’s a very pretty image… But compare this to what Consumer organisation says:

Minimum standards for free-range egg production are set in the code of welfare for layer hens… It sets maximum indoor stocking densities for free-range production (10 birds per m²) but there are no rules prescribing the size of the outdoor range area or maximum flock numbers.

Mainland, predictably, would like to point out they are breaking no laws in selling their Woodland eggs as free range. I agree with them – they are not. That’s part of the problem: the image we have of free range hens doesn’t always measure up to reality. And according to the SPCA’s Juliette Banks, they’re not breaking the law precisely because the ‘free range’ term is so meaningless. “There is no substance to it, apart from what consumers have been misled to believe – and I mean that really strongly.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t imagine ten hens to a square metre when I think of free range hens.

Woodland eggs come from a flock of 7,500-8,000 hens. That’s less than some companies like Otaika Poultry Farm, who have 21,000 hens (the mind boggles) but it’s still a huge number of animals. Hamish Sutherland, Mainland Poultry’s general manager, admits that some hens will never set foot outdoors. FRENZ free range chicken farmer Rob Darby alleges that around 70% of Woodland hens will never set foot outdoors (a figure Mainland Poultry disputes). And SPCA chief executive Robyn McDonald has this to say :

Many free-range hens are in barns all their lives, eating only grain. Consumers are being cheated if they think every (free-range) egg is equal – they certainly aren’t going to get the beneficial flavours and colour of yolk from the big flocks… Many big producers keep thousands of birds in one barn, with just a tiny exit at one end, and aggressive birds tend to “guard” the door.

While it’s good for the SPCA to confirm the facts, I wish they’d do more than pay lip service to the principles of free range farming and stand up for the animals they purport to protect. The SPCA’s standards for meeting their seal of approval allow for debeaking chicks and for up to 4,000 birds per barn. Debeaking is to prevent cannibalism, which results from stressed-out birds. But I have a hunch that if the birds were kept in smaller flock sizes, with greater access to the outdoors, a more natural outdoor environment, food source and lifestyle – they wouldn’t be aggressive, and they wouldn’t need to be debeaked.


So whose eggs can you trust?

– Any free range eggs are better than battery laid eggs

– Sunset free range eggs are from a company which does not also own battery hens. They are SPCA approved which means the flock is no larger than 4,000 hens – but beak blunting is still allowed.

– Eggs which have been certified by AsureQuality Organic are in my opinion the best. These include FRENZ Organic Eggs and Pasture Poultry Organic. Bio Eggs are also AsureQuality certified, although the same company also produces a barn-laid egg range. While AsureQuality standards are still not the idyllic conditions described by Woodland eggs, they are a much better start. The AsureQuality standards include:

  • A maximum flock number of 1,500
  • No beak blunting
  • A minimum of 4m per 100 square metres of barn of “pop holes”
  • Birds must be fed mostly (but not necessarily exclusively) organic food
  • A maximum indoor stocking density of 6 birds per square metre of deep litter space
  • A maximum outdoor stocking density of 850 laying hens per hectare (350 per acre)

AsureQuality says,

Poultry must have access to an open-air run whenever weather conditions permit and, whenever possible must have such access for at least one third of their life. These open-air runs must be mainly covered with vegetation, be provided with protective facilities, and permit birds to have easy access to adequate numbers of drinking and feeding troughs.

You can read the rest of their poultry standards here.

From a personal perspective, our family has switched to FRENZ Organic Eggs. While not all their eggs are organic, and therefore not able to be certified by AsureQuality, the company claims that all their hens are raised in accordance with the organic standards in terms of living space and outdoor access. They don’t produce any non-free-range eggs. The hens are not debeaked and the eggs are not dyed with beta carotene. Their website has a nifty feature where you can track the flock by the code on the box. The boxes are 100% recyclable, biodegradable and made in New Zealand. If the hens are fed uncertified organic food instead of 100% Certified Organic, the 100% Certified Organic label is removed from the box. In all my digging I’m yet to hear anything untoward about the FRENZ label, other than a cheeky predilection for harassing other egg companies about their standards.

You could say, I’m sold.