There's no official national standard for free range eggs, and the label on your carton can have any number of meanings depending on the producer.
Without an official standard for free range products, consumers are at real risk of being misled by businesses wanting to cash in on the premium that a free range product attracts.
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The free-range-egg business is booming. It has 39% of the egg market in value, and free-range eggs experienced the most growth in that category in the year to 2012, according to Retail World Grocery Guide 2012.
The free-range label also attracts a price premium over cage and barn eggs. In our survey of CHOICE members, the vast majority of respondents said that it’s essential or important to them that the eggs they buy are free range and that they’re willing to pay extra for the label. But are they getting what they’re paying for?
Existing free range standards
Certification standards are set by a range of industry bodies including the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd (AECL, the group which represents most egg producers), Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia (FREPA) and the Free Range Farmers Association Victoria (FRFA) and animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA and Humane Society International. Most organic certification standards also address free range conditions.
These certification schemes are voluntary, however, and the detail and requirements vary, which means that consumers may not be getting what they expect. In particular, the maximum outdoor stocking densities allowed under each standard are diverse and the issue is controversial. See animal welfare for details.
There have been numerous instances of misuse of the "free range" label in recent history:
- 2009: analysis of AECL data by NSW Greens MP John Kaye indicated that as many as one in six eggs sold as "free range" were laid by caged or barn hens.
- 2011: the Federal Court penalised a West Australian wholesaler for falsely labelling cage eggs as "free range".
- 2012: The Federal Court penalised a South Australian wholesaler for falsely labelling cage eggs as "free range".
- 2013: The ACCC launched proceedings against two "free range" egg companies claiming the conditions were not free range.
In April 2012 we invited CHOICE members who are responsible for buying or choosing the food in their household to answer a number of questions about free range foods and labelling. The survey was completed by 900 people.
- For 60% of our respondents, it’s "essential" the eggs they buy are free range, while a further 25% say it’s "important".
- For 85% of free-range-egg buyers, animal welfare considerations are among the reasons for their choice.
- A surprising 43% of our respondents rely solely on the words "free range" on the pack to assure them that a product is free range – more so than the logo of a certification body (11%) or a logo and the words "free range" combined (28%).
- More than half our respondents (52%) told us they’re willing to pay $3-5 more per per dozen for free range rather than cage eggs.
Our results highlight how important getting the real deal when buying free range is to consumers.
Tips for buying free range
If you want to ensure that the free range eggs you buy meet your expectations:
- look for certification logos and inform yourself about the free range standards behind the certifying bodies so you know exactly how eggs stamped with their logo have been produced, and
- check the packaging or producer websites of the eggs you buy for information about their standards.
Consumers should have confidence in free range labelling. CHOICE wants to see a national consistent standard defining free range that producers must comply with. We think the best approach is to review the model code of practice which is voluntary, and make it mandatory.
Alternatively, we would support the introduction of a national information standard under the Australian Consumer Law, as NSW Fair Trading recommended in December 2012.
For more information about organic and free-range eggs, see Food and drink.