As you might already have noticed, eggs are at the center of a freshly ignited debate involving an animal rights organisation, Safe, recently backed by a group of Kiwi celebrities, and one of our biggest supermarket chains, Countdown.
The little storm revolves around the sale of cage-sourced eggs, as opposed to a widely idealised free-range world, often pictured as a little bucolic paradise where chickens are literally free to roam. The truth is a bit more complicated.

Free-range chickens lay eggs for Sauder's Quality Eggs in Pennsylvania.

An industry issue. The controversy started when Countdown’s Australian parent company, Woolworths, announced its plans to phase out the sale of eggs sourced from caged hens from 2018 onwards. Animal advocacy group Safe then urged Countdown to make the same commitment in New Zealand. In response, the supermarket chain emphasised that our free-range supplies, currently relying on a mix of free-range, barn and cage eggs, are not sufficient to meet the overall demand.
“Woolworths Australia’s pledge to go cage free was made within a market with a different supply chain, and under a different regulatory environment,” Countdown’s general manager of merchandise, Chris Fisher, told SupermarketNews.
The issue, in other words, involves the New Zealand egg industry as a whole, and that same industry has already committed to phasing out conventional cage eggs by 2022, under the Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of 2012. The solution appears to be just a matter of time.
“We give our customers a choice between free range, barn and caged eggs. In this respect, we are no different to other major retailers around the country,” said Fisher.
According to Fisher, around 40 percent of Countdown’s egg sales are from non-caged eggs, namely a mix of free range, barn and organic. In addition, 60 of their stores have dedicated more space to free range eggs rather than caged eggs, with plans to increase it further.
When looking into this topic, affordability needs to be considered.
“There is continued demand for affordable eggs and more pressure than ever before to lower the cost of food,” said Fisher. “Eggs are a good source of protein and it’s important to us that we continue to provide affordable eggs to meet this demand.”


Too good to be true?

How ‘free’ is free-range, then? Every now and then, the question resurfaces as to whether we know enough about the food we buy, and how it is sourced. Unlike what many people assume, for instance, commercial free-range farming is often based on an industrial scale. The key difference lies in the hens’ access to the outdoors through pop-holes in the shed walls. By law, the outdoor stocking density can reach up to 2,500 hens/ha and the indoor stocking density must be lower than 9 hens/m2.
Currently, free-range eggs make up around 14 percent of commercially produced eggs purchased in New Zealand, whereas the majority of them are still farmed in conventional cages. Only 3 percent come from barn operations, with a maximum indoor stocking density of 7 hens/m2. As a more sustainable alternative to barn and free-range production systems, colony farming is growing and might become NZ’s method of choice when conventional cages will be phased out of use, hopefully by 2022.