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 price that they can charge for free-range eggs.

The free-range egg business is booming. It has 39% of the egg market in dollar terms, with free range having the most growth in the egg industry in 2011, 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?

What IS 'free range'?

There are a number of certification bodies, each with their own standards of what 'free range' is. They include industry bodies such as:

Unsurprisingly, animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA and Humane Society International also have their own certification schemes. Most organic certification standards also look at free-range eggs.

But these schemes are all voluntary and the detail and requirements vary. This 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 Egg Corporation 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.

What consumers think about free-range eggs

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.

  • 60%of our respondents say, it's "essential" that the eggs they buy are free range
  • A further 25% say it's "important".
  • 85% of free-range egg consumers name animal welfare considerations 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 dozen for free-range rather than cage eggs.

Our results highlight how important getting the real deal is for consumers when buying free range.

Tips for buying free range eggs

If you want to ensure that the free range eggs you buy meet your expectations:

  • Do some research on different certification schemes to find one you trust and check for details when shopping.
  • Check the packaging or producer websites of the eggs for information about their standards.

Consumers deserve better

Consumers should have confidence in free-range labelling. CHOICE wants to see a national standard defining free range that all producers must comply with. We think the best approach is to review the model code of practice which is voluntary and mandatory.

We would also support the introduction of a national information standard under the Australian Consumer Law, as NSW Fair Trading recommended in December 2013.

What does free range mean for chickens?

For 85% of free-range buyers, animal welfare considerations are among the reasons for their choice. It's not surprising that many of our respondents said the meaning of 'free range' strongly relates to the freedom of birds to move around and access the outdoors.

According to our survey, free range should mean:

  • birds are never confined in cages (according to 69% of respondents)
  • birds have more space, with a maximum number of birds outdoor per hectare (66%)
  • 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.

Animal welfare experts, such as RSPCA chief scientist Dr Bidda Jones, believe that chooks suffer stress unless they're able to satisfy their basic behavioural needs. They need:

  • space to stretch and flap their wings
  • a secluded nesting place in which to lay their eggs
  • facilities that allow them to dust bathe and forage.

Traditional free-range standards are designed to meet these needs but there's concern they're being compromised by large-scale production systems.

Beak trimming

Chooks instinctively form small social groups in which there's a pecking order, but in overcrowded conditions these behaviour patterns break down and birds often attack each other. Packs of bully birds can form and terrorise the others.

Producers still sometimes trim the hens' beaks to prevent them injuring (or killing) weaker birds. Beak trimming is allowed under the Egg Corp Assured scheme and by the RSPCA, but it is prohibited by the Australian Certified Organic standards.

Stocking density confusion

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

It allows a proportionately higher stocking density for meat hens, 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.

The NSW Government applies the code 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. Queensland was the only state with a legislated maximum outdoor stocking density for free range set at 1500 birds per hectare (in line with the Code of Practice), and 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 (depending on other factors) – 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 Egg Corporation 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 the Egg Corporation, 29% of free-range egg production in Australia is stocked at densities higher than 20,000 hens per hectare.

Which stocking density is best?

Arguing for an increase to 20,000 birds per hectare, the Egg Corporation has cited research conducted by the Scottish Agricultural College that shows densities greater than the equivalent of 20,000 birds per hectare "impose some constraint of free expression of behaviour".

What wasn't highlighted was this isolated 2006 study looked at behavioural responses to different indoor floor spaces 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, would have to be taken into consideration."

The Egg Corporation also referred to a commissioned survey of more than 5000 consumers that asked people about their 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 considered to be a reasonable maximum outdoor stocking density for free-range egg-laying hens.

  • Less than one per cent 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)
  • 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.

What about barn-laid eggs?

Barn-laid is an alternative humane system for producing eggs which is endorsed by the RSPCA. The term might make you think of a rustic hen house with a few dozen hens contentedly clucking, but 'shed-laid' would be a more accurate description, as barn-laid eggs come from hens housed in large sheds. Limited beak trimming is allowed but the birds have litter in which to dust bathe and adequate space to flap their wings, stretch and socialise.