Last week South Melbourne Market announced it would be banning the sale of eggs laid by caged hens in its marketplace, and forbidding their use in any of the cafes in the vicinity beginning December 1.

The market also announced it would be clearly identifying hen-stocking densities – the number of chickens per hectare at the farm at which they are kept – at point of sale. Vendors and cafes will also have to clearly identify whether the eggs are barn-laid, free-range and/or organic.

To enforce its new policy, management is demanding proof from store-holders that the egg suppliers and the hen-stock densities they are claiming are what they say they are.

“Anything that’s labeled free-range, we’ll be doing regular audits to prove – whether it’s meat or poultry or eggs – where it has been purchased,” says Ross Williamson, the general manager of the market. “If it says 1500 hens per hectare, then we’ll be asking for proof of that.” Williamson says anyone caught breaching those policies would jeopardise having their license renewed.

It’s estimated that about 11 million Australian layer hens live in cages. Even in facilities that are well maintained – where hens are well fed and their environs clean – chickens live in claustrophobic conditions where their ability to spread their wings, walk around or stand fully upright is virtually impossible. Considered to be social and intelligent creatures, these hens are unable to engage in a range of natural behaviors, such as perching, nesting, foraging and dust bathing.

“The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act,” writes Dr. Konrad Lorenz, who won a Nobel Prize for his study of animal behavior in their natural habitats. “For the person who knows something about animals it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cage-mates to search there in vain for cover.”

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It’s easy to find videos of battery farms online; If you’re an egg or chicken eater and you can make it through one clip in its entirety, I commend you. This one shows hens in cages so small they are literally on top of each other, unable to move.

Not all cage farms look like those – recently, this Victorian operator invited The Guardian to inspect his well-run cage facility – but the oft-heard excuse by cage-hen farmers that chickens “know no different” seems a poor justification for keeping them incapacitated in overcrowded wire enclosures.

South Melbourne Market joins a growing list of Aussie food retailers phasing out the sale or use of cage-laid eggs. Last year Woolworths became the first Australian supermarket to make that commitment. Coles has banned the use of cage eggs in its home-brand range, but the supermarket chain still sells cage eggs by other producers. Even McDonalds and Subway announced a couple of months ago they too would be getting out of the cage-egg business.

Protesting battery hens is no longer just the province of animal-rights groups – farm animal welfare has become a cause championed by mainstream consumers who, in the age of viral video and documentaries such as Food Inc, want to know where their food comes from.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, with the industrialisation of food, production became quite removed from the consumer’s eye,” says Hope Bertram, RSPCA Australia’s Humane Food Marketing Manager. With so much information at consumers’ fingertips, “Now we’re seeing a shift back,” she says.

The South Melbourne Market should be commended not just for banning cage eggs – which the RSPCA among other welfare groups and governments deem inhumane – but because of its commitment to show the type of living conditions in which the hens are kept. Because, as it turns out, not all free-range is created equal.

“You can get anything from 1500 chickens per hectare to 40,000 a hectare” under the free-range banner, says Williamson. The latter figure is equivalent to four hens per square meter, which admittedly, is not how I had envisioned free-range conditions.

Hope Bertram says that people tend to make the assumption that, “Free-range is best” when it comes to layer hen welfare standards, when it’s much more complicated than that.

“The fundamental needs of hens can be met in a really well-run barn as well as in a system where birds might have access to the outdoors,” she says. Essentially, it’s about how those facilities are run and maintained and both systems have bad eggs.

“I think we often put ourselves in the hen’s position – wouldn’t it be nice to have the sun on our wings – and from an animal-welfare perspective it’s not necessarily the case,” Bertram says. “It’s about basic needs and what hens need physically for those behavioural needs.”

In Australia there’s no unifying, nationwide, free-range standard, only a disparate array of guidelines by various agencies and groups. The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry published by the CSIRO, for example, recommends a maximum outdoor stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare. Victoria’s Free Range Farmers Association puts the number at 750 birds per hectare. To put this into context, the maximum limit settled on by Coles and Woolworths for their own brand of free-range eggs is 10,000 chickens per hectare. Ross Williamson wants customers at the market to be aware of such discrepancies.

Currently the cheapest eggs at South Melbourne Market cost $4.80 for a dozen cage eggs. For $4.95 – an extra 15 cents – you can buy a free-range dozen. For a carton of eggs laid at farms with less than 1500 hens per hectare, you’ll pay $7. Organic eggs are more expensive. It’s a financial sacrifice the RSPCA hopes consumers will make as they become better informed on the subject.

It’s important to say that there are certain unpalatable truths about all large-scale commercial egg systems, whether cage or barn-laid or free-range, that are criticised by welfare activists.

All three systems kill male chicks, which are deemed commercially useless since they don’t lay eggs, and are a different breed of chicken to those reared for meat.

Female layer hens are killed as soon as they reach about 18 months across all systems, because their egg production diminishes significantly after that point. A layer hen’s natural lifespan is closer to five years or more. And one of the most visually distressing parts of mass chicken farming is de-beaking or what the RSPCA calls beak-trimming, which is done to prevent injuries from pecking – and in some cases, cannibalism – in a flock.

The lay of the layer-hen land is complex, and at the end of the day, if you’re interested in animal welfare, you must be prepared to do your own research. Most companies don’t divulge hen-stock density on their packaging, and a “free-range” label can be spurious. Look for certifications from the RSPCA or Humane Choice. The Animal Welfare Labels site evaluates a range of Australian egg suppliers from Coles to Pace Farms.

“Read product labels as much as you can and try to cut through all the marketing claims,” Hope Bertram says. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, contact the company, she advises.

“Once you get the information on how things are actually bred and treated in their life it’s hard to do anything else but change your behaviour,” Ross Williamson says. “I’ve always been budget conscious, but I’m making decisions for reasons of animal welfare”.