THE peak egg industry body is pushing ahead with contentious plans for a maximum of 20,000 birds a hectare on free-range farms despite some free-rangers' calls for stocking rate limits of 1500 birds or fewer.
The Australian Egg Corporation Ltd (AECL) insists that qualitative research with free-range consumers, including focus groups last week in Perth and Adelaide, supports expert welfare and food safety advice on the 20,000 cap.
By year's end carton labels will sport the corporation's seal of approval for free-range eggs from farms with 20,000 hens/ha or fewer as well as meeting other minimum housing and management standards.
But national consumer watchdog group Choice is not convinced and is conducting its own consumer surveys.
It says confusion about what the term "free-range" actually means has become an increasingly big concern to shoppers.
Adding complexity to the debate, South Australian free-range producers last week voted to seek labelling that created a "medium density free-range" category for eggs from farms with 1500 to 5000 birds/ha and "high density" for 5000 to 10,000/ha farms.
In Queensland State laws define free-range as less than 1500 chooks/ha and in NSW The Greens want to limit farms to 750/ha by 2015.
Choice (formerly the Australian Consumers Association) claims the egg industry has kept shoppers in the dark about the new national free-range term, even excluding Choice delegates from discussions on how eggs should be labelled.
AECL has been keen to set the new 20,000/ha voluntary cap because it says most producers already run more than the 1500 hens/ha specified in the industry's model code of practice, taking advantage of provisions allowing higher densities if birds are frequently rotated to fresh pastures.
With some farms now carrying up to 50,000/ha, AECL executive director James Kellaway said the new voluntary standard introduced a ceiling that was acceptable to producers, bird health and animal welfare specialists, food authorities and consumers.
He said 29 per cent of free-rangers currently carried more than 20,000 chooks/ha but he believed the new industry-wide standard would see that number shrinking to comply with the new cap in the coming year.
Some of the "intensive" free-rangers were small area family farmers.
AECL represents the research, marketing and regulatory interests of most Australian egg producers, including 227 free-range farmers, but according to the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA), about 100 other producers are not members.
FREPAA president Phil Westwood said the corporation's voting processes reflected corporate members' wishes not the views and interests of family farmers.
He said Bills before the SA and NSW parliaments to cap free-range stocking rates at 1500 would protect family farms and consumers.
North West NSW animal welfare lobbyist Lee McCosker, who heads the Humane Choice body, is also angry about the higher stocking rate standard saying it undermines free-range standards.
"The intensification of free-range production does not fit with our philosophy or consumer expectations," she said.
Mr Westwood, who farms in Victoria, felt it was "only a matter of time" before all State parliaments supported a 1500/ha truth in labelling standard similar to what Queensland adopted a decade ago.
He has written to all State agriculture ministers claiming AECL's benchmark would destroy the industry's credibility by introducing a different standard which threatened family farm sustainability.
Choice representative Ingrid Just said shoppers wanted accurate and consistent national standards.
The best outcome was "a standard that meets customer expectations and encourages confidence in the product".
Choice's own research with shoppers should be compiled within two weeks.
Ms Just was surprised and disappointed the consumer body was not "a voice at the table" when the 20,000 hens/ha cap was discussed, saying in the past the body enjoyed good ongoing discussions with the egg industry.
Mr Kellaway said Choice's feedback was sought some time ago but it had no consumer research to support a position on hen densities, whereas AECL had commissioned independent research with 5000 free-range consumers in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, and now Adelaide and Perth.
AECL's consumer studies included responses to video footage of hens roaming in and out of sheds and in an open paddock on a NSW farm with 20,000/ha stocking rates.
Mr Kellaway said the corporation also had a close working relationship with the NSW RSPCA and relied on advice from livestock industry specialists to draw up its new standard.
The egg corporation's new free-range production standard has 120 specific farm and food safety requirements which must be met, including specifications on water quality, grazing rotation and bird housing.