Tiny number hidden on supermarket eggs: Do you know what it means?

If you're buying free-range eggs then you need to know what this number means.

You’ve probably noticed there’s almost no price difference between free-range and cage eggs sold at the supermarket. So if you’re one of the thousands of Aussies now making an “ethical choice” at the checkout, it’s time to do a little more research because not all free-range eggs are the same.

Look a little closer at your carton, and you’ll find a number hidden on the packaging. That’s because free-range egg farmers have to disclose how many hens it squishes into each available hectare of outdoor space. It’s called the “stocking density”.

While some egg producers have a stocking density of 40 hens per hectare, you’re unlikely to find them in the supermarket. During a recent trip to Bondi Junction, the lowest stocking density we could find on the shelves at Woolworths and Coles was 750.

Three different egg cartons in supermarkets in Australia.
Stocking densities are supposed to be displayed prominently on free-range egg cartons. Can you find them? Source: Yahoo

How much space do free-range hens get?

The highest stocking density was 10,000 — the upper-most limit permitted by the government. The lower the stocking density, the larger it appeared to be written on packaging.

A hectare is 10,000 square metres, so if the company has a 10,000 stocking density then the hens may only have one square metre of outdoor space during their lifetime.

Coles and Woolworths branded eggs have a maximum stocking density of 10,000 per hectare and unlike some brands, they do display this prominently on the outside of their cartons. The CSIRO’s model code recommends a maximum of just 1500.

Because it can be hard to find the stocking density on egg cartons, we asked Woolworths and Coles if they had considered placing free-range eggs from lowest to highest density from the top shelf down. Neither responded directly to this question.

Left: An egg shelf in Coles. Right: An egg shelf in Woolworths.
Coles and Woolworths say they will phase out caged eggs by 2025. Source: Yahoo

Shopper encourages others to look at density

One Woolworths shopper took to social media this week to remind others to check the stocking density on the carton.

"New lesson learned. You think all free range eggs come from the same conditions but not so," the woman wrote in the Simple Savers Facebook group.

"I usually buy Woolies brand but they have 10,000 chickens per hectare. The brand I bought today for $2 more for the same amount and egg weight is 1500 chickens per hectare, a lot more room to scratch about and do what our chookies love to do.

"We all need to take responsibility to ensure the animals we take from to live our lives; live the best lives to feed us eggs or for meat; before their demise at our hands."

Free-range egg rules in short

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has a number of standards it enforces:

  • Producers must prominently state their stocking density on packaging.

  • Farms with stocking densities over 10,000 birds cannot call their eggs free-range.

  • Chickens must be able to access outdoor space to roam and forage.

Do all free-range hens get to go outside?

If an egg is sold as free-range, then the hen that produced it must be given the option to go outside.

However, many large producers house their hens in large sheds and give them the option of roaming into paddocks. Because chicken ancestors were jungle birds, many chickens choose not to go outside into open spaces where there are few trees because it leaves them susceptible to being killed by predators.

Hens in cages.
Cage eggs will continue to be allowed in Australia until 2036. Source: Getty (File)

Why are cage eggs still sold at Woolworths and Coles?

Regular cage eggs are already banned in the European Union and New Zealand, but enriched caged eggs are allowed. Australia intends to phase them out by 2036. Both Coles and Woolworths have promised to banish them by 2025.

In a statement, Woolworths told Yahoo News it is on track to achieve this goal and around half of its stores are already cage-free. “All carton eggs across our range will be cage-free, as well as any eggs used as an ingredient in our Own Brand products,” it said.

Coles said it's Western Australian and Victorian stores no longer stock cage-free eggs. Nationally, around 42 per cent of its own-brand products that contain eggs now rely on free-range or barn-laid eggs.

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