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stepping on eggshells...free range eggs

(september 2011)

If you are buying free range eggs there are a few things to consider. You may be surprised to learn Australia does not have a national enforceable independent certification system that applies to the whole industry like the EU has. This is truly a case of "buyers beware" as not all free range eggs are as free as others. There are however accreditation and auditing systems in place.

The Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) is a national industry body that represents 90% of egg producers. They have laid down guidelines for their Egg Corp Assured scheme. Similarly the RSPCA has laid down some guidelines which can be voluntarily adopted with its "Choose Wisely" labelling. Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia Ltd (FREPA) and Australian Certified Organic (ACO) both have guidelines for their free range eggs.

Definitions of what free range means under these various schemes can differ greatly. Stocking densities in sheds from 5 to 14 birds per square metre, and in outdoor areas from 750 to 1500 birds per hectare; (and there is talk of one particular accreditation scheme upping that number considerably which is bad news for chooks).

Paddock quality guidelines can vary from, "avoid muddy or unsuitable conditions" which sounds a little vague to, "long term sustainability with adequate natural ground cover". Beak trimming is prohibited under some schemes and limited to "a once off trimming in the first week...limited to trimming only of the hook of the upper (beak)..." This de-beaking may come as a surprise but chooks that are in a density situation can become carnivorous so the guideline has been put in place for a reason. ACO and FREPA both prohibit the practice because their stocking densities are the lowest on the list.

There are a lot of criticisms regarding some of these guidelines for being too soft but there is nothing stopping you from finding out exactly which scheme meets your approval. All of the above mentioned free range accreditation guidelines are readily available on their respective websites. I will also point out that a producer may not be accredited with any body and actually be exceeding these guidelines (rare but actually true in some cases).

Jon and Joanne Mawby at Cleland Gully Free Range Eggs run 12 000 Highline chooks near Mount Compass. They do no de-beak the birds and there is easy access from the immaculate barns to good levels of outside natural ground cover on a property that has a gentle slope down to a river with lots of shade. All in all the birds are just kicking back doing whatever chickens do.

Jon's main concern for the industry is that there is talk that one code of practice's density levels for free range birds could be increased from an existing 1500 birds per hectare to possibly anything up to 10 times that number. These figures are purely speculative and unconfirmed but if it was to happen it is a density level that Jon says makes a joke of the low density producers who are doing the right thing by their livestock.

This is clearly bending guidelines to meet the increased consumer demand for free range product. It seems like a move to facilitate the easy conversion of existing cage and broiler factory farming infrastructures to "free range" but it completely misses the point that the idea of authentic free range is to put the hens' welfare first.

One in five South Australian free range eggs come from Rohde's Farm in the Clare Valley which produces around 32 000 free range eggs a week. This is another family business and is a broad acre farm at Tarlee also producing grain and sheep. The supplementary feed for the chooks can therefore come straight from the farm. This is an RSPCA accredited free range product so every couple of months a representative from the choose wisely scheme carries out an audit.

Angela Rohde shares the same concerns as the Mawby's in regards to opportunistic suppliers riding the free range band wagon and the possibility of even laxer guidelines being introduced by some of the accreditation schemes.

One of the most interesting operations is Tom and Fiona Fryar's Kangaroo Island Free Range Eggs. This couple started with 400 chooks in 1992 and were definitely visionaries in the free range field. The farm has 50 mobile shelters which are dotted around and moved continually to new pasture which is possible due to the Island's lack of foxes. This provides a continual and varied diet of grubs, seeds, worms and insects and no chance of manure build up.

Shortly after weaning, young Maremma stock dog puppies bond with the chooks. The Italian Maremma Sheepdogs are natural herders and act as hen bodyguards by keeping an eye out for eagles and feral cats. They now run 50 000 full beaked chooks over 4 000 acres near Kingscote and are Humane Choice Accredited.

There's plenty of other options, apart from my pics (mentioned above), so the choice is yours, but don't just assume that free range always means happy chooks.


free range egg omelette, field mushrooms,

alexandrina romano and sour dough

Omelettes are an art; they are an exercise in temperature control, egg protein coagulation and basic pan control. A good omelette requires the eggs to be broken and slightly mixed with a fork, NOT beaten (that's scrambled! as in scrambled eggs).

There is approximately 6 degrees temperature difference between coagulating (setting) egg whites and yolks. This is exploited by having a fairly cooked egg white component of the dish (which sets quicker at lower temps) and a softer runnier yolk, and therefore two different and distinct textures in the dish.

The addition of a yolk and water are actually softening the proteins which should never be cooked to a level that they squeeze or release water; this will produce a dry leathery result.

Butter sizzles at 100°C, the temperature that the water content of butter starts to evaporate. Adding room temperature eggs to a 100 degree heavy based omelette pan should give a final temperature of around the mid 70°C mark. Egg whites coagulate at around 72°C so the butter singing in your pan is telling you have sufficient temperature to set the eggs without shocking them.

per person
3 whole free range eggs
1 free range egg yolk
tablespoon water
30 g butter
sea salt
cracked black pepper
1 giant field or Swiss brown mushroom
additional 30 g butter
one or two good sprigs fresh oregano
handful shaved Alexandrina Cheese Company Romano cheese (or similar hard, salty cheese)
thick piece of sourdough bread
30 ml extra virgin olive oil

Dry toast the bread both sides on a hot grill plate and brush with the olive oil.

Place the butter on the mushroom with the oregano and season. Place in moderate to hot oven for 8 or so minutes. When mushroom is cooked transfer to the top of the bread and cover with the cheese, then grill until cheese melts.

Place an omelette pan over medium heat. Crack the eggs, add the water and fork through lightly to bust the yolks and "muddle" the whites. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the butter in the pan, swirl it around, if it immediately turns nut brown the pan is too hot, start again. The butter should just sizzle.

Add egg mix, turn up flame to fairly hot. As the egg starts to set drag a spatula or fork across the omelette and tilt the pan to allow uncooked portion of egg to slide into the bare space you have created, repeat after one minute from another direction. Now "wrap" the pan to release the omelette; add mushrooms then slide a third up the edge of the pan and flip it into the centre, repeat with the remaining third on the opposite side of the pan to create a cigar. The residual heat will cook the centre of the omelette, (grilling or flipping just over cooks the dish).