PAYING a little more may get you free range eggs laid by hens that can bask in the sunlight, but price is no guarantee of that.
Consumer advocacy group Choice's study found free range eggs from farms with 1500 hens a hectare on average cost $1.12 for each 100 grams. But some from farms with 10,000 hens to a hectare cost more, such as Ecoeggs.
"It's a farce. We looked at 55 free range egg products from 93 supermarkets across Australia and there's no absolute correlation between price and stock density," said Choice's director of campaigns Matt Levey.
"Egg producers are profiting from the free range labelling confusion. It's a big loophole that some producers have exploited for far too long."
The study, released on Wednesday, will ramp up pressure on Australia's consumer affairs ministers, who will meet in Melbourne on Friday, to end the confusion.
Choice wants an enforceable national standard that would replace the current patchwork of voluntary codes and laws that mean free range stock density rules span 750 to 10,000 hens a hectare.
Federal Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, who will chair the forum, said they will discuss five possible solutions: the status quo, an industry-developed trademark scheme, a revised model code, an industry code of conduct and a national information standard.
"The range reflects the number of moving parts in this discussion. One is so consumers can be confident about what terms actually mean and therefore make an informed decision," he said.
"Also, egg producers want to know what they need to do to claim a premium standing or higher value product so they're not troubled by false or misleading claims allegations."
Mr Billson said all five options had "enforcement capability attached to them".
He plucked the status quo as an example, highlighting the string of federal court action taken against dodgy egg producers by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
At Friday's meeting, NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello will advocate for the National Information Standard, which will ultimately include a legal definition for "free range".
Despite ballooning free range egg sales and, in tandem, consumer confusion, he conceded it may take years for the public to see decisive action.
"I don't know if we'll get to a once and for all, definitive position on Friday because it will be a two or three-stage process.
"If we can at least agree to a national standard, then we can start working on the definitions," he said. "All sectors are crying out for this, the consumers and producers crying out for clarity."
Choice acknowledges that the term "free range" should be based on factors beyond stock densities, such as size and location of openings and outdoor and indoor conditions.
But Choice also wants a logo be applied to every product to clearly indicate stock density levels.
John Coward, chief executive of Queensland United Egg Producers and spokesperson of Egg Farmers of Australia, said it was ignorant of Choice to place so much focus on stock density and rejected the logo proposal.
"It will be misleading as there are too many variables and other impacts that come into it," he said.
"Stock density should not be the key focus.
"The focus should be on the management practices at each level of densities, factors such as the range area, the provision of shelter, the outdoor environment, access to range, and so on."
The Australian Egg Corporation has previously proposed "free-range" stock density levels at 20,000 hens a hectare.
This was later rejected by the ACCC, which deemed it misleading.
FACTS & FIGURES
What do existing free range egg standards require from producers?
Stocking density rules range from 750 to 10,000 hens per hectare, in addition to other farming conditions such as the size of openings.
• 750 Free Range Farmers Association Vic
• 1000 Australian Certified Organic
• 1500 Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, ACT government, RSPCA Approved Farming, Humane Choice, Western Australian Code of Practice for Poultry
• 10,000 Qld government, Woolworths, Coles
Does buying more expensive free range eggs guarantee better farming conditions?
No. The Choice investigation of 55 products found there is no absolute correlation between price and stocking density.
• $1.19 average price of products with stocking densities at 1500 hens per hectare or fewer
• $0.98 average price of products with stocking densities at 1500 hens per hectare or greater
• $1.37 price per 100 grams of Ecoeggs free range eggs that have a stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare
• $0.77 price per 100 grams of Rohde's free range eggs that have a stocking density of 1500 hens per hectare
What action are Australia’s regulators taking to end the free range egg labelling confusion?
Federal, state and territory consumer affairs ministers will meet this Friday in Melbourne to discuss five labelling reform options.
• Status quo keeping things as they are with or without a targeted consumer and industry information campaign
• Trademark scheme this will be an industry-developed and voluntary certification scheme
• National Information Standard NSW Fair Trading has been leading the work in the past year to produce a draft standard with a legal definition
• Revised model code the current code for domestic poultry, published by the CSIRO in 2002, could be updated with a focus on consumer issues
• Industry Code of Conduct A national, industry-wide code could help bring consistency across all states and territories
Are producers of free range eggs being transparent with their farming practices?
The Choice survey of 55 free range egg products found stock density information was hard to find.
31pc - Products with stocking densities listed on the packaging
13pc - Products with stocking densities listed on a website
20pc - Products providing no stocking density information on the packaging or a website
36pc - Products where the makers refused to supply stock density information