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Shelling out for false free range

CHOICE report reveals 213 million reasons why we need a meaningful national free range egg standard

9 June 2015

Consumer advocacy group CHOICE has today released a report which finds that 213 million eggs sold in Australia last year under the 'free range' label failed to meet consumers' expectations of the free range claim and fell short of the national model code of practice[1]

The report, which also found consumers pay nearly double the amount for free range eggs compared to caged, has been released ahead of a meeting of State, Territory and Federal Ministers on Friday that will decide whether to progress a national free range egg standard[2].   

"If you are paying extra for eggs labelled 'free range' today, the sad fact is you are most likely being misled and ripped off," says CHOICE Director of Campaigns & Communications Matt Levey.

"Many consumers are paying extra assuming hens are staying in the equivalent of a comfortable bed and breakfast but instead they're stuck in a crowded backpacker hostel.  We need a national standard so that anyone claiming to sell 'free range' eggs has to meet minimum requirements," Mr Levey says.

CHOICE's research found that some of the largest egg brands – including Pace Farm, Farm Pride, Manning Valley, Woolworths and Coles –have stocking densities that are at odds with consumers' expectations and the model code of 1,500 birds per hectare[3]

The consumer group says that Friday's ministerial meeting will have the opportunity to end the free-range rip-off, which currently sees some of the largest-scale producers charge the highest prices.

"We could only find stocking densities for 35 of the 55 free range products investigated – and only 17 of those were on the carton – showing there is a massive information gap," Mr Levey says.

"Stocking densities ranged from 185 to 10,000 hens per hectare. Despite this extreme variation, there was no absolute correlation between the price of eggs and the stocking density. It looks like some businesses are hoping to cash in on consumer demand for genuine free range eggs without delivering for hens.

"While the ACCC has taken a number of producers to court in a bid to define what free range isn't, an enforceable national standard would be an efficient and simple way to level the playing field and remove industry and consumer confusion.

"Consumers want labels that make sense and deliver on their promises. 84% of egg buyers agree that a mandatory national standard is needed while only 2% did not believe there should be a standard." 

CHOICE believes a free range standard would combine the common-sense definition of free range resulting from recent ACCC enforcement actions and a consistent display of stocking densities so that consumers are able to buy products that meet their expectations.

CHOICE is calling on consumers to write to their relevant Consumer Affairs Minister and call for a national standard for free range eggs: choice.good.do/freerange 

[1] http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/3451.htm

[2] Eggs labelled free range cost $0.99 per 100g, eggs labelled as barn laid cost $0.71 per 100g, eggs labelled as caged cost $0.55 per 100g.

[3] CHOICE Free Range Egg Survey 2014 found that 2% of egg buyers believe that 10,000 is an acceptable stocking density. While 46% believe that 1,500 is a reasonable stocking density for free range eggs.

SCRAMBLED STOCKING DENSITIES: 

• The National Model Code of Practice for the welfare of animals defines "free-range" using a stocking density of no more than 1,500 birds per hectare but is not enforceable. 
• The Australian Egg Corporation was pushing for a maximum stocking density of 20,000 birds per hectare, 13 times the Model Code limit. This was rejected by the ACCC in its initial assessment on the grounds it may mislead consumers.
• Major retailers Coles and Woolworths have stocking densities of 10,000 birds per hectare, nearly 7 times the Model Code limit.
• In August 2013, CHOICE lodged its free-range super complaint with NSW Fair Trading.
• In October 2013, CHOICE gave a Shonky Award to Ecoeggs for what was then their declared stocking density of 20,000 birds per hectare.
• In June 2014, NSW Fair Trading commenced work on the development of a national information standard for free-range eggs. However this would require Federal Government support to proceed. 
• Both ACT and Queensland have free range legislation in Australia;
o ACT's Egg (Labelling and Sale) Act 2001 follows the model code and sets a stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare
o Queensland's Animal Care & Protection Amendment Regulation sets a stocking density of 10,000 birds per hectare
• SA  is introducing its own voluntary free range egg code

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