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Consumer research has phoney free-range under threat

CHOICE research finds 87% of consumers want free-range to mean hens go outside

26 November 2015

CHOICE has released its latest research highlighting consumers' desire for a strong and meaningful free-range egg standard in Australia that would recognise the need for hens to regularly go outside, have room to move inside and outside, and for farmers to undertake animal welfare practices. 

CHOICE's research forms part of its submission to the government's free-range egg labelling consultation process and follows a long campaign by the consumer advocacy group to end the free-range farce.

The consumer group is calling for producers who fall short of consumers' expectations to label their products in a way that accurately reflects their production practices, for example 'access to range'.

"Consumers have a firm idea of what they believe free-range to mean and they want a standard to reflect these expectations. Creating a new category such as 'access to range' will provide consumer choice and confidence while catering to different production models," says CHOICE spokesperson Tom Godfrey. 

The CHOICE research found that consumers believe it is important, very important or essential that the following elements are included in a standard: 
  • 87% said that birds actually go outside regularly. 
  • 91% said that birds have room to move comfortably when they are outdoors. 
  • 89% said that farmers undertake animal welfare practices in the production of their eggs. [1]

"With free-range eggs costing almost double than caged[2], the purpose of a standard for free-range eggs should be to give consumers accurate information so they can decide whether they wish to pay a premium," Mr Godfrey says.

"A standard should not be used to shield producers who might be misleading consumers."
 
"With no national standard for free-range eggs, consumers are getting ripped off. Earlier this year, we found that a minimum of 213 million eggs were sold as free-range in 2014 that didn't meet consumers' expectations of free-range.[3]

"It's time to stop  big egg producers cashing  in on consumers' desire to buy eggs that meet a higher standard of welfare without delivering a product that meets these claims," says Mr Godfrey.
 
CHOICE is aware that some egg producers are actively lobbying through this process for a standard that sets a lower benchmark for free-range production than the definition established through case law (which is that at a minimum, most chickens go outside on most ordinary days).
 
Rather than broadening the definition of free-range to accommodate big egg producers, consumers (62%) think that producers whose products fall short of a free-range standard should be able to label their products in a way that accurately reflects their production practices, for example 'access to range'.[4]

"Importantly, this approach will provide certainty for those large-scale producers who might be at risk of misleading consumers. Instead of remaining at risk of ACCC action or having to change their production practices, they can simply adopt more accurate labeling and give consumers genuine information about how their products are produced. That would be a win for consumers and a win for egg farmers, large and small," Mr Godfrey says.

Submissions to the government's free-range egg labelling consultation process close on November 27 with the Government likely to make a decision on a standard in February next year.

Information about CHOICE's free range campaign can be found at choice.com.au/freerange

What CHOICE wants

At a minimum, a national information standard should require that eggs labelled 'free-range' are produced in farms where:
  • The majority of chickens actually go outside regularly
  • Birds have room to move comfortably when outdoors
  • Birds have room to move comfortably inside the barn
  • Farmers undertake animal welfare practices
  • Any products that don't meet these minimum requirements should be labelled in a way that accurately reflects how they were produced, for example 'access to range'.
Adopting this recommendation would result in the following four categories:
  • Free-range; produced by hens that can, and do, move about freely on an open range on most ordinary days, plus animal welfare requirements (as defined in option 3a of the Consultation Paper)
  • Access to range; produced by hens that have access to the outdoors (as defined in option 3b of the Consultation Paper)
  • Barn; produced by hens that are continually housed within a barn in which they are free to roam
  • Cage; produced by hens that are continually housed in a cage within a barn

The elements that free-range buyers think are important in a standard[5]:

[1] 2015 CHOICE Free Range Egg Labelling Survey, responses to 'How important do you think a national free range egg standard includes the following elements?' Percentage shown are total rated essential, very important and important. n= 1677.
[2] Free Range Eggs: Making the Claim Meaningful: https://www.choice.com.au//~/media/619b60e5a1f04b2191d09fd9dab4c72e.ashx
[3] Free Range Eggs: Making the Claim Meaningful: https://www.choice.com.au//~/media/619b60e5a1f04b2191d09fd9dab4c72e.ashx
[4] 2015 CHOICE Free-range Egg Labelling Survey in response to 'Some egg producers allow their hens access to the outdoors and do not engage in caged production practices, but may fall short of meeting other requirements in the free range egg standard. Do you think there should be a specific label for this category (e.g. 'access to range', 'barn yard')?' n=1677
[5] 2015 CHOICE Free Range Egg Labelling Survey, responses to 'How important do you think a national free range egg standard includes the following elements?' Percentage shown are total rated essential, very important and important. n= 1677.

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