By Michael Burge Image: my own chooks.
WHAT is it about free-range eggs that ruffles so many feathers, sets governments against corporations, farmers against consumers, and treats ethical producers as the lowest member of the economic pecking order?
Every year there is another squabble in the mainstream media, blaming one sector of the egg industry for upsetting the economic balance of the whole, followed by another crow for clear production standards regulated fairly by government.
Last year, freshly-laid Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, expressed his fears about bird flu destroying the egg industry, all supposedly because of free-range chicken flocks!
Understandably, free-range egg producers are crying ‘fowl’ …
It’s probably wildly inappropriate to make light of the issue, especially while animals are suffering as we fail to overcome the obstacles; it’s just that the politics of egg production match the terminology of the chicken coop so well.
The facts at the moment are this: if you buy eggs labelled “free-range” at a supermarket, you’ll be paying a premium, and there seems no way of telling, whilst standing at the overwhelming display of product, whether the eggs are truly free-range, or the expensive result of bending the rules.
If you really want free-range eggs, it’s probably best to have your own chooks. Most Australians live in areas where produce stores will sell you everything you need to set-up and maintain a backyard flock, including the birds themselves.
You’ll have to feed, nurture and care for your birds extremely vigilantly, and wait a while before you get eggs; but when they come, you’ll soon have enough to feed your household and the neighbours’. The eggs will be delicious.
By that stage, you might be left feeling like you put a lot of time, energy, and pricy chook feed into the venture, and may come to understand why paying more for truly free-range eggs is completely justifiable for the producers who do it within the voluntary ethical codes of practice.
If building (or buying) a predator-proof chicken house, and allowing the birds to roam a bit every day, is not for you, the next best thing you can do is to find a local free-range egg producer.
Your fruit and veg shop probably stocks their products. The best way to check their free-range credentials is to pay them a visit. If they’re a bit cagey (sorry), then they may be using the term “free-range” a little loosely.
Farmers in Australia are getting increasingly wary of visitors. It’s a combination of activist intrusions, on top of the traditional “Get orf moi land!” emotions.
But there is also the growing phenomenon of the farm-gate, akin to the cellar-door movement amongst wineries, allowing consumers to see what we’re getting for our dollar.
You might only be exposed to the friendly face of the farming operations, not the behind-the-scenes realities, but a farm visit will give you an idea of the people and the practices you are paying for.
For me, the best way to cut through the marketing spin of “free to roam” (yes, with 20 birds per square metre, PR people), and “barn laid” (give me a break), is to open the egg carton before you pop it in your trolley.
The sight of a range of slightly different eggs – some a little misshapen, some with a patina of the farmyard, even a trace of chook poo and feather – will see me place that carton very carefully where the milk cannot crush it, because I know my $7.00 is going towards birds who are truly liberated.
I have been an egg producer in my own backyard, and I can spot a real free-range egg from a fake.
© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.
Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords