Feature

Free-range egg labelling cracked

Green Lifestyle

When you buy a carton of eggs labelled as free-range, are you getting what you paid for? Here's what the egg industry isn't telling you.

ethical-eggs

Credit: Photo by Steve Brown; Styling by Tracy Rutherford

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Eggs aren’t just eggs any more. There are cage eggs, barn-laid, cage-free, organic, cruelty-free, free-range and more. And when it comes to free-range – one of the fastest growing sectors of the market – the choices only seem to be getting more confusing and the guarantees of product authenticity more blurred.

Free-range eggs now account for about 38 per cent of the retail market compared to ten percent in 2000, according to egg industry body, the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL). But one so-called free-range egg can be quite different to another.

Most of us would think of ‘free-range chooks’ as birds that are free to wander in the outdoors for much of the day, with enough shelter from the elements and predators, space and food to lead comfortable lives. But when you reach for the ‘free-range’ eggs at the supermarket, you could be buying product from farms that have many thousands more birds per hectare than the 1500 considered the ideal by a national Model Code of Practice. The problem is that the Code is voluntary – it was endorsed by every state and territory in 2002 but not everyone adheres to it.

The AECL has said that nearly 30 per cent of eggs produced in Australia come from farms running more than 20,000 birds per hectare (ha). Indeed, one farm in Young, NSW, where an outbreak of a strain of bird flu forced the culling of about 400,000 birds, was found to have 80,000 birds in an area of 1.6 ha.

There’s been much debate of late between big and small egg producers, animal welfare agencies and government about the national egg production standards. All players have been looking to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to make a move toward regulating the egg industry nationally, just last month (June 2014), all the states and territories agreed to taking steps to develop a national standard.

What’s in a name?

In 2012, the AECL made a submission to the ACCC for a Certification Trade Mark that would allow eggs from farms with 20,000 hens per hectare to be labelled as free-range. In rejecting the submission, the ACCC said the proposed standard “may mislead consumers about the nature of eggs described as ‘free range’”.

“The strong public interest in this matter shows that consumers want clear and accurate labelling of eggs,” ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said at the time, adding that it did not accord with consumer expectations about free-range egg production.

The Queensland government approved an increase in free-range layer hen stocking densities in July 2013 from 1,500 to 10,000. Coles and Woolworths supermarkets have also been selling free-range labelled eggs that come from farms with 10,000 birds per hectare, about which the Humane Society International (HSI)
has complained to the ACCC.

“We must not sacrifice the livelihoods of genuine free-range producers, promote consumer fraud, or impact on the welfare of millions of animals to appease a few large producers who are looking to redefine ‘free-range’ to mirror their intensive free-range operations,” said a statement from the HSI. The organisation has called on the government for a national legislated free-range standard.

Research by consumer group CHOICE shows that free-range eggs cost almost twice the price of eggs and one-fifth more than barn-laid eggs. And consumers often don’t always get what they paid for. CHOICE launched a complaint with the NSW Department of Fair Trading, saying there was an urgent need for a clear national definition of ‘free-range’ and tighter regulation.

Types of eggs

The NSW Government Food Authority website lists three basic kinds of eggs:
free-range: where birds are housed in sheds with access to an outdoor range, though access varies widely;
barn laid: where they’re free to roam within a shed, that may have more than one level;
cage: where hens are continuously housed in cages within a shed.

A ‘cage-free’ label means it’s likely your eggs have come from chooks that live entirely indoors in barns. The ‘pasture ranged organic’ label is designed to differentiate free-range hens that are free to wander on pasture from those chickens that are perhaps kept indoors or only let outdoors infrequently.

And just because the eggs are labelled ‘free-range’ doesn’t mean the hens have been fed differently from caged birds, or organically – they could be eating the same animal-derived products or genetically modified grains that can be fed to caged birds. Organic eggs are dearer as the animals are fed differently to ensure their natural egg-producing cycles are maintained.

Dodgy practices

Free-range practices came under fire from Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce who claimed they were more likely to cause an outbreak of avian influenza than other egg production processes. His comment came in the wake of the culling of birds at the Young farm, but it was subsequently shown the farm in question far exceeded recognised bird densities, at about 80,000 per hectare, and most of the culled birds were caged.
“This shows how corrupt the industry is and how duped consumers are,” says Verna Simpson, HSI Director.

Both the Humane Society International and Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon have called on Mr Joyce to retract or clarify his statement, saying the strain of bird flu in question is more likely caused by overcrowding.

“Supermarkets have applied so much pressure to producers to supply cheap ‘free range’ eggs for their private labels that farmers are prepared to compromise human health and our food security to meet their demands,” Verna adds. “If people can only afford cage eggs, that’s fine, but these eggs should be labelled accordingly.”

Future moves

"We are very pleased that the State Ministers for Fair Trading are coming together to develop a national free range standard," says Verna. "The Ag Departments wear way too many hats they are always conflicted by profits versus welfare. Fair trading on the other hand is about consumer expectation.

"The difference between consumers and chickens is that consumers can talk and are quite clear about their expectations when paying a premium for a product. The ACCC have made credence claims a focus this year and through their investigations into the industry over the last three years are best placed to take the lead. We are hoping they will be guiding the State Ministers through this process and sharing their years of research."

"The important element though will be legislation - history has shown that Model Codes are not robust enough for an industry fraught with fraud and legislation is needed to ensure consumer confidence and protect the true free range farmers and the chickens in their care," says Verna Simpson.

All eyes are on the ACCC as talks get serious about developing a national standard for free-range eggs, perhaps sometime next year.

How to: Be a savvy shopper

– Choose third-party certified free-range eggs – it will state this on the carton.

– Look for the Humane Choice logo on cartons, www.humanechoice.com.au.

– Visit www.animalwelfarelabels.org.au which lists farming practices of individual egg producers.

– Buy certified organic eggs (these cost more).

– Shop at small local shops or markets for eggs with independent free-range certification.

– Look for ‘free range pastured’ or ‘pasture ranged organic’ labels which are being used by true free-range producers.

DID YOU KNOW?

Australians eat an average of 214 eggs per year, 50 per cent of which come from caged birds.
Seventy-three per cent of people buy based on price. Cage eggs cost on average $3.35 per dozen,
barn-laid $4.76, and free-range $5.38. Source: Australian Egg Corporation Ltd.

For more info, visit:
- www.freerangeeggs.net.au
- www.aecl.org
- www.hsi.org.au
- www.guide.ethical.org.au