The debate over how many chickens can fit in a paddock and still be called free-range flared up again today when consumer advocacy group Choice accused retailers and some egg farmers of selling more than 200 million eggs last year that were labelled free range but failed to meet consumer expectations.
Despite the nation’s consumer affairs ministers agreeing 12 months ago to introduce a national standard for ‘free-range’ eggs, there is no national or legally enforceable definition and the issue remains a sore point between consumer advocates and the industry. The ministers meet again on Friday to consider the issue of a national standard once again.
While the CSIRO-designed “model code” specifies a maximum stocking density of 1500 fowl per hectare for free-range eggs, only the ACT has adopted that level. Queensland’s standard is 10,000 birds per hectare, and the same definition used by Woolworths and Coles. The Australian Egg Corporation was pushing for 20,000 birds per ha, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) rejected the suggestion on the grounds it may mislead consumers.
Last year, one of the largest family-owned egg producers in NSW, Pirovic, was fined $300,000 for misleading conduct over “free-range” labelling following legal action by the ACCC.
Choice’s investigation says consumers pay nearly double for free-range eggs compared to caged, and that some of the largest egg brands, including Pace Farm, Farm Pride, Manning Valley, Woolworths and Coles base free-range claims on stocking densities at odds with consumer expectations and the model code.
Spokesperson Matt Levey said buyers are being “misled and ripped off”.
“Many consumers are paying extra assuming hens are staying in the equivalent of a comfortable bed and breakfast but instead they’re stuck in a crowded backpacker hostel. We need a national standard so that anyone claiming to sell free-range eggs has to meet minimum requirements,” he said.
Despite stocking densities ranging from between 185 to 10,000 hens per hectare, Choice found there was no correlation between numbers and the price of the eggs, which averaged 99 cents for “free range” compared to 55 cents for a caged egg.
“We could only find stocking densities for 35 of the 55 free range products investigated – and only 17 of those were on the carton – showing there is a massive information gap,” Levey said.
Just 14 of the 55 complied with the 1500 per ha model code, and 20 companies refused to detail stocking densities.
Choice pointed to surveys saying 84% of egg buyers wanted a mandatory national standard, and argues that stocking densities should be included on the egg carton.
But the Choice campaign angered peak agriculture group NSW Farmers, who demanded an apology for saying people were being ripped off.
NSW Farmers president Fiona Simson called the Choice report a “cheap shot”.
“Both Choice and egg producers agree that discussion on a nationally consistent free-range definition is important,” she said
“Instead of dealing with the issue with maturity Choice has opted for a political stunt, telling consumers that if they buy free range, they are being ripped off.”
She said farmers support transparency and fully informed consumer choice.
“That’s why we have been working collaboratively with state and federal ministers to arrive at a nationally consistent definition of free range that can underpin consumer confidence and provide a strong platform for industry investment,” Simson said.
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