Understanding free range eggs

Free range eggs are favoured by 51% of Australian consumers, with the majority of those people happy to pay more, Canstar Blue research shows. But are you getting what you pay for?

Egg labelling laws have been a hot topic in recent months, with confusion over what does or doesn’t constitute a ‘free range’ egg. While there are a number of state regulations, voluntary codes and guideline definitions for producers to follow, there are no consistent national laws enforcing free range egg standards across Australia.

The Federal Government is facing pressure to provide legal clarity on the matter going forward, but for now, what are the current guidelines?

The Model Code

The Model Code of practice for the welfare of animals: Domestic Poultry 4th edition lists measures farmers should take in order to advertise their eggs as being free range. This includes access to lighting, ventilation and medical attention, as well as sufficient space for the hens to move freely. The guidelines say that free range farms should have a maximum density of 1,500 hens per hectare in an outdoor area with sufficient access to natural light.

RSPCA guidelines

The RSPCA has similar requirements to the Model Code. Though its guidelines are a little less detailed, it has the same goal of ensuring birds are sufficiently cared for and given comfortable space. Like the Model Code, the RSPCA recommends a maximum hen density of 1,500, though it is slightly more lenient on rotational ranges, allowing 2,500 hens per hectare where the range is able to be periodically moved to fresh grazing ground.

Some farmers have been found to operate well beyond these recommended hen densities. CHOICE provides a list of egg suppliers and associated hen densities to help consumers see which brands do and do not comply with the above recommendations.

Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC)

In 2015, the ACCC released guidelines as to what can be considered free range for the purposes of ensuring consumers are not misled. Although there are no current laws governing free range labelling, the ACCC has successfully fined farmers who advertise their eggs as free range, despite farming conditions being quite different from what the ordinary consumer might expect to be free range.

The ACCC does not itself provide information as to expected conditions, instead often referencing the Model Code and RSPCA guidelines as factors in suspected cases of misleading conduct.

Reform

Some farmers are accused of advertising eggs as free range despite having hen densities of up to 10,000 per hectare, so it’s difficult for consumers to tell if their free range eggs actually came from comfortably living hens. At the time of writing, the Federal Government is reviewing submissions for the reform of free range egg labelling in order to increase consumer certainty. The consultation paper suggests a few options, including enforceable farm standards, as well as improved labelling which categorises free range eggs into levels.

For example, a farm with a hen density of 1,500 would be labelled a ‘Premium free range egg’ producer, while farms with densities between 1,500 and 10,000 would continue to be labelled as standard free range. These are only preliminary discussions and are subject to change. It is expected a legislative solution will be introduced sometime in 2016.

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