Buyers 'misled' on free-range eggs

01 Oct, 2013 05:37 AM

ROLLING hills. Dappled sunlight. Lush green pastures. Two chickens.

This is the picturesque environment egg producers like to paint for ethical consumers paying up to double the price for "free-range" eggs.

But the truth can be wildly different. Almost a third of free-range farms are cramming more than 20,000 hens into a hectare, while the best practice farms have only 1500 chickens in the same space.

The labelling of free-range eggs has become so nebulous, consumer group Choice is making its second-ever "super complaint" to the NSW Fair Trading Minister, calling for the government to standardise labelling.

Established in 2011, super complaints allow Choice to raise an issue that is significantly harming the interests of consumers in NSW. As part of its conditions, no brands can be identified.

Fair Trading will then research the issue, reporting on actions that may be taken to address it.

In its report to the Fair Trading Minister, Choice says consumers are being significantly misled by some egg producers, despite being charged a premium price.

The model code for the welfare of animals defines "free range" as 1500 birds a hectare. But 29 per cent of egg producers who declare their eggs are free range have about 20,000 chickens a hectare - more than 13 times the recommended number, the complaint says.

Choice policy adviser Angela McDougall said consumers were being "sold an idea" of what free range means.

"With the lack of standards and the wide variation in practices employed by supposedly free-range operations we think, in many cases, consumers are not getting what they paid for at this moment," Ms McDougall said.

Supermarket Coles is stocking 10,000 birds a hectare for their home brand free-range eggs, the report said.

Two free-range products by the same brand were found to charge $1.25 per 100 grams, despite have 20,000 birds a hectare.

"They're making a killing out of these products.

"They are charging double for them and consumers have no way of telling the good from the bad," Ms McDougall said.

The Australian Egg Corporation Limited - which was pushing for 20,000 chickens a hectare - said they supported Choice's call for regulation, but would prefer a national approach.

"All our research had indicated that 20,000 would have been an appropriate range density. However, based on submissions made to the ACCC and its initial assessment, [we are] now reviewing the maximum density," spokesman Kai Ianssen said.

Greens MP John Kaye - whose own bill on egg regulation was defeated in Parliament in August - said the free-range egg market was descending into a crisis.

"Genuine free-range farmers are at risk of being run out of business and consumers who are prepared to pay more to avoid animal cruelty are being misled by low-cost low-welfare industrial producers," he said.

Fourth generation dairy farmer Chris Eggert now labels his eggs "pasture ranged organic" to avoid being tarnished with the "free-range" brush, he said.

"My chickens have heaps of room to move around in," Mr Eggert said. "I don't use the name free range on my eggs. I don't want my eggs associated with 20,000 birds per hectare."

Date: Newest first | Oldest first


1/10/2013 8:58:19 AM

Lets have a clear legislated set of labels for a range density's. Suggestions such as: Greater than 20000 per hectare - Intensive farmed eggs 10000 -20000 per hectare - Reduced intensity farmed eggs 1500 - 10000 per hectare - Dense free range less that 1500 per hectare - Full free range eggs Then the consumer can decide for themselves with clear descriptions. Farmers can aim for the market that suits them, and knowone is trying to be dodgy. Easy as. Bern
1/10/2013 11:06:59 AM

Free range farming is not all about outside stocking density. Food safety, animal welfare and biosecurity are more important.
1/10/2013 1:18:09 PM

That's your view Bern but consider this:- 20,000 birds on one hectare today but a different hectare tomorrow & yet another hectare the day after et seq. versus 1500 birds on the same hectare month after month. Which group will do the most environmental damage? There is more to stocking rates than pure numbers.
2/10/2013 6:47:28 AM

Is it classed as free range if the chickens go from one cage to another!
2/10/2013 6:49:38 AM

There should be inspectors visit and view to issue a certificate that see true free range chooks healthy and well fed. It may cost but surely it would stop those who choose to say free range in ridiculous circumstances like 20,000 on one hectare.
2/10/2013 7:51:42 AM

All of the above are very important issues and should be taken into consideration. Farming never is as simple as stock numbers per Hectare.
2/10/2013 11:38:13 PM

Spotted quoll killed all our daytime free range, 7 to 5,000 acre but locked up at night chickens,(I forgot to shut em in) I must get some more, but in the meantime I always try to buy eggs layed by black chickens older than 18 months that have not been mulsed or formally lived in China. My supplier says he complies absolutely. Such honesty is rare as chicken lips.


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