If not all, nearly every single free range operation that I know of is a formerly caged chicken practitioner who opens the sheds doors into the drive way for two hours before the sun set and closes it as soon as the sun is set. That is off course only if it is not raining. On rainy days or weeks the chickens remain inside. The concentration, density of chickens in these sheds varies from 10,000 to 300,000 and sometimes more, that is per hectare. In such supper dense environment where a chicken can barely move and has no more than its own body volume to move into beak trimming is a necessity. With their beak intact the chickens will tear through each other’s flesh with such ferocious savagery that is seriously disturbing to watch. The chickens with space to move into are less stress and they are not compelled to relive themselves by tearing into their fellow chickens. Since not all their aggression is stress related in a larger space the victims are able to run away and get lost behind a tree or in a patch of grass.
Density of chickens per hectare is directly related to its economics. Even if we take out the stress related issues such as fighting and killing one another as well as the cost of land and infrastructure, which increases compoundingly the highest cost of lower density operation are labour related costs. In a 1000/1500 dense one hectare paddock, which is not concreted or is not under roof the chickens wander around as they are pleased. While doing the wandering they lay eggs here and there and in rainy days the eggs need to be discarded or need washing and sanitising before they are packed. Any reasonable Australian knows that the highest cost of doing any business is the labour costs. So it is no wonder why the chickens are locked in 22 hours a day and when allowed out they are restricted to concrete floors.
Organic Certifying bodies of which ACO, Australian Certified Organic, is one; requires a maximum of 1500 chickens per hectare, 10,000 square meters. Every August they send an auditor to look at and examine our production. For no less than 5 hours the auditor goes around the farm and methodically checks and documents every aspect of the operation. Since theoretical density is no more than a 1500 chicken per hectare and since we actually have no more than 800 chickens per hectare and since the train eyes of the auditor can see the sparsity of chickens versus the acreage we have been getting the nod for the third consecutive year and since we have been in business for three years only our records are impeccable. Other Organic Certified producers are all subject to the same detailed audit irrespective of who is the auditing certifier.
On the other hand, there is neither any private sector nor is there any government regulation limiting or quantifying the number of chickens that can be held in a non-organic certified “free range” operation. The very concept of “free Range” is at best misleading and in reality an outright lie. In the absence of government and industry imposed regulation numerous economic reasons have banded together to create a pyramid of opportunity which many opportunists have not been able to resist.
A well informed and well engaged group, but a minority nevertheless, pay the higher prices but through emails, social media, phone calls, and feed backs to producers, super markets and local stores hold the entire supply chain accountable to some sort of standards.
The majority, however, pay the higher prices convinced that they have done the right thing by the chickens and their families. It is this group, a very large group, who are feeding the opportunists and are funding a fraudulent industry. I suggest that if they demand, from their local stores or supermarkets, proof of claim (show me the evidence that these eggs are from a free range farm and show me the definition of what you call “free range’) many a free range producers would disappear overnight.