Free range eggs

What does 'free range' really mean, and are consumers being misled?
 
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01 .Introduction

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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. 

In this article:

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.

Our survey

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.

CHOICE verdict

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.

 
 

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For 85% of free range buyers, animal welfare considerations are among the reasons for their choice.

So it’s not surprising that, for our survey respondents, the meaning of ‘free range’ strongly relates to the freedom of birds to move around and access the outdoors. According to our respondents, free range means:

  • birds are never confined in cages (69% of respondents)
  • birds have more space as a maximum number of birds is allowed outdoor per hectare (66%) and/or,
  • birds have easy access to pasture (65%).

Unfortunately, images of contented, clucking chooks flapping their wings, dust bathing, socialising and roaming around open green pastures aren’t always the reality.

Stocking density confusion

The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry is a voluntary national guide to the poultry industry, and designates a maximum outdoor stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare for free range layer hens.

It states that a proportionately higher stocking density for meat hens than for layers may be used, and goes on to say that "any higher bird density is acceptable only where regular rotation of birds onto fresh range areas occurs and close management is undertaken which provides some continuing fodder cover".

Whether or not this final clause relates specifically to meat hens, or to both meat and layer hens, is open to the interpretation of state and territory governments.

For example, NSW told us its interpretation is that it applies to birds in both egg and meat production systems. Queensland, on the other hand, says its understanding is that the clause is only applicable to meat chickens. While Queensland was the only state with a legislated maximum outdoor stocking density for free range which was set at 1500 birds per hectare, in line with the Code of Practice, it increased that limit to 10,000 birds per hectare in 2013.

The maximum number of birds allowed in outdoor spaces can differ enormously under the various free range standards. Examples include:

  • 750 birds per hectare - Free Range Farmers Association (Vic) 
  • 1500 or 2500 birds per hectare (if the outdoor system has a fixed range area or rotational range access respectively) - RSPCA
  • 10,000 birds per hectare - the limit adopted by Coles and Woolworths for their own brand of "free range" eggs.
  • 20,000 birds per hectare - as proposed by the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd and rejected by the ACCC. This would be a 13-fold increase on the Model Code of Practice's 1500 hens per hectare. 

According to AECL, 29% of free-range egg production in Australia stock at densities higher than 20,000 hens per hectare.

Which stocking density is best?

In arguing for an increase to 20,000 birds per hectare, AECL cited research conducted by the Scottish Agricultural College which shows that densities greater than the equivalent of 20,000 birds per hectare “impose some constraint of free expression of behaviour.”

What wasn't highlighted was that this isolated 2006 study looked at behavioural responses to different indoor floor space allowances in small groups of just five or six hens.

The College told CHOICE that this density wouldn’t necessarily be suitable outdoors, “where birds are more likely to spread out when foraging, and where droppings and thus parasite and nitrogen loads etc would have to be taken into consideration.”

AECL also refered to a survey of over 5000 consumers which it commissioned, which asked about acceptance of varying outdoor stocking densities based on visual representations of these densities. It reported community acceptance of a wide range of free range outdoor stocking densities from less than 500 to more than 25,000 hens per hectare.

In our survey, we asked consumers what they’d consider to be a reasonable maximum outdoor stocking density for free range egg laying hens. 

  • Less than 1% of respondents supported 20,000 birds per hectare
  • Stocking densities at the lower end of the scale were more popular (1,500 and 750 birds per hectare were nominated by 16% and 12% of respondents respectively)
  • However 65% of respondents said they didn’t know. 

For more details see our Free Range Key Findings Report (pdf).

This reinforces our opinion that a maximum stocking density shouldn’t be predominantly based on consumer research, but rather on a broader body of relevant independent, scientific research in conjunction with consumer research, and with consultation with all stakeholder groups.

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