Issue of free-range eggs cracked at Woolworths



Chicken eggs

Credit: Stara Blazkova/Wikimedia

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The recent decision by Woolworths to stock fewer cage eggs has highlighted a growing consumer trend, while raising a number of important issues for the egg industry.

Woolworths will now sell 15 cage eggs products instead of 20 and has also added five more barn-laid egg brands. It expects to only stock 11 cage lines by the end of the year.

This is a similar strategy to what rival Coles has had in place for some time, and the changes reflect an increased consumer demand for animal welfare to be addressed in food production, said Andrew Monk, convenor and board director of the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA).

"Consumers need to be sure that labelling claims on eggs can be trusted and now with a code of practice adopted by Woolworths they can have some assurance," he said.

The market value for organic free-range eggs was estimated to be $1.8 million in 2008, and is expected to increase significantly over the next few years, enjoying more growth than cage eggs.

But despite this, with the economic crisis and growing unemployment, current free-range sales growth has slowed down, retailers have said, with price acting as perhaps the biggest barrier for consumers.

Cage eggs still represent about 60 per cent of egg sales at Coles, for example, where in Victoria a dozen cage eggs cost around $2.70, while free-range eggs cost about $4.60.

"There is a significant price difference between free-range and cage eggs," said Zelko Lendich, managing director of egg producer Farm Pride.

"While the demand for free-range eggs has risen, it only represents approximately 20 per cent of the total eggs sold in Australia currently. That means up to 80 per cent of consumers are still choosing to purchase cage eggs, or barn laid eggs, based on their affordability."

Free-range eggs cost more because they are more expensive to produce, requiring more land, capital and water than cage eggs (interestingly, this also means free-range production creates a larger carbon footprint than caged).

But "as demand for free-range and barn-laid increases, through the economies of scale we should see a greater level of affordability," said Woolworths' fresh food general manager, Michael Batycki.

Batycki said that the shift to decrease cage eggs is hoped to improve practices amongst suppliers, and could eventually see battery hens phased out.

While animal welfare and organic groups have applauded the move to increase the presence of free-range options and decrease cage alternatives, Lendich said that current and future demand for these free-range eggs raises a number of important issues for the industry.

For example, at the moment there is no Australia-wide standard for free range-eggs as there is with cage eggs. This could open the way for abuse by unscrupulous operators, claiming their eggs are free-range when they are not, he said.

"The issue is once...standards are developed and enforced, we could see a dearth of free-range eggs on the shelves as some producers may fall short of the standard," he added.

"Therefore, an increase in demand driven by the supermarkets might not be able to be met with an ample supply of accredited free-range eggs."

The BFA's Monk said that consumers should look for the Australian Certified Organic "Bud" logo when purchasing organic free-range eggs. This guarantees that the birds have had access to greenpick, shade, shelter and protection from predators, he said.

Flock sizes are also limited, debeaking is prohibited, as is the use of artificial lighting to extend daylight hours, and certified organic chickens cannot be fed antibiotics.