What do egg labels mean?

As is well known these days, most eggs don't come from happy hens. Over three million hens live short and cruel lives crammed into wire cages. Eighty-eight per cent of the one billion eggs consumed in New Zealand are produced by hens that spend their entire lives on an individual floor space smaller than an A4 sheet of paper.

So, with misleading packaging, standards and claims adding to shopper confusion, how can you avoid supporting cruelty?

To forestall government intervention, in 2006 egg producers agreed to voluntary labelling of eggs, and while this partly happened it is not industry-wide or mandatory.

Words like ‘free to roam', ‘cage-free' and drawings of countryside and sunshine on egg cartons leads the average New Zealander to think of happy hens dust-bathing and foraging in fresh air and green pastures-exactly what the egg producers want us to imagine-rather than the reality of large sheds confining tens of thousands of hens.

Shockingly, many ‘free-range' hens may never actually get to experience being outside.

The proposed new colony battery cages, or ‘furnished colony systems' as the industry refers to them, will only add to the confusion. These positive terms are used to divert attention away from what, for most people, would be the unpalatable reality of egg production.

Here SAFE unravels the mystery of egg labelling, from caged to organic:


egg title





Free range


Confined in cage


Unable to display normal behaviour

Unable to adequately exercise
Deprived access to outdoors
Beak trimmed
  3 3
Male chicks killed at birth

Slaughtered from 18 months



1) Barn hens are kept at a stocking density of seven hens per square metre. This high density limits the hens ability to exercise freely.

2) There is no industry certification for ‘free range' in New Zealand. There are a number of variables between brands, including the required size of the outdoor range area, time flocks spend outdoors, and maximum number of hens per flock.

3) Most caged hens are beak trimmed, those that are not are kept under very low light levels to reduce feather pecking and cannibalism.

4) Hens may be beak trimmed depending on the certification standards applied.


Egg FAQs

What is natural behaviour for a hen?
Natural instinct for a hen is to scratch for food, dust-bathe, perch, build nests, flap her wings and fly but in many modern farming methods she is denied these activities. Scientific tests have shown that while modern hens lay more eggs, become less broody and more aggressive, they have retained most of their original instincts. Because of their breeding, and the conditions in which they are kept , some hens, particularly caged ones, peck excessively at themselves and each other and behave aggressively, increasing the risk of cannibalism.

What is debeaking or beak trimming?
Some egg producers, including free-range and organic, remove part of the hens' beaks, ‘debeaking', to minimise damage from pecking and to reduce the incidence of cannibalism (which happens when hens are kept in too large flocks or confined). The chicks undergo this mutilation before they are ten days old. Depending on how much of the beak is removed, the process may be painful and can result in a permanent reduction in feeding behaviour.

Battery and Colony Battery Cages
• Of the 3.2 million egg-laying chickens in New Zealand, eighty-eight per cent are caged.
• Most caged hens are beak-trimmed; those that are not are kept under very low light levels to reduce feather pecking and cannibalism.
• One battery hen shed may contain as many as 60,000 caged hens.
• Each battery hen has a floor space smaller than an A4 piece of paper.
• The government is in the process of reviewing the welfare code for layer hens, and will most likely accept colony cage systems as a replacement for current battery cages.
• A colony cage provides each hen with 600 square centimetres of usable space (just over an A4 piece of paper in area).
• Hens will have minimal ‘enrichment' inside the cages.
For more information: Colony cages

• Barn-farmed hens are kept in large sheds with limited space and no access to outdoors.
• They are provided with nest boxes and litter but are still unable to express their natural behaviours and exercise properly.
• Maximum stocking density for barn production is seven hens per square metre.
• To reduce aggression and cannibalism, barn hens are often kept in dimmed lighting and usually debeaked.

Free Range
• There is no certification for ‘free range' in New Zealand and the code of welfare for layer hens does not specify basic standards such as size of outdoor area and maximum numbers of hens per flock.
• Some ‘free-range' farms house up to 15,000 hens per shed - unnaturally large flock sizes are stressful for hens.
• Maximum indoor stocking densities for free-range production are 10 hens per square metre.
• Many hens do not get outside at all. When thousands of territorial hens are confined in one shed dominant hens often block exits.
• Many free-range hens are beak-trimmed, depending on the certification standards applied.
• Most large industrial battery egg producers now also have free-range operations.

• Organic refers to food free of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers and antibiotics.
• There are different types of organic standard (such as AsureQuality Organic and BioGro).
• Organic standards require birds to be free-range and restrict flock size.
• Some organically raised hens are beak-trimmed, depending on the certification standards applied.

Other claims
Consumer NZ reports that some egg brands give the impression they are "approved" or "certified" by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA). These claims are misleading: NZFSA does not approve or certify any eggs. Its role is to register egg producers' risk-management programmes and audit their compliance with these programmes.
All producers with more than 100 birds are required to have a risk-management programme. This is to ensure producers are meeting food-safety standards - not to do with animal welfare.


Alternatives to eggs
If allowed to live out their natural life hens can live many years. They are sensitive, intelligent and inquisitive animals, and possess the instinct to protect their family. Animal farming is not done in the interest of the animals themselves and all systems of egg production cause some level of suffering.
This is why many New Zealanders have chosen to completely avoid eggs.
Find out more: Egg Free leaflet.

• When a hen's egg production falls below the farmer's requirements, generally after 18 months, she is of no more use and slaughtered.
• Dead layer hens are often disposed of in landfills or may be processed to make soup and pet food.

The fate of males in an egg-laying industry
• In all egg production systems, the male chicks, unable to lay eggs, have no economic value and are killed at one day old.
• In New Zealand over three million one-day-old male chicks are considered byproducts and killed each year by gassing or maceration (being minced alive). The industry also refers to this process as ‘instantaneous fragmentation' in an attempt to make it sound less brutal.

Find out more: Welfare issues

Cage eggs?