The new official definition of 'free-range' allows 7 times more hens per hectare than the CSIRO recommends

Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The contentious issue of what constitutes a “free-range” egg has been resolved by Australia’s consumer affairs minister today in Canberra, with producers able to stock birds at 10,000 per hectare – one bird per square metre.

That level aligns with the existing Queensland definition, and is also used by the major supermarkets, including Woolworths, Coles and Aldi, but it’s nearly seven times higher than the “model code” published by the CSIRO, which specifies a maximum stocking density of 1500 fowl per hectare for free-range eggs. Smaller producers were backing the 1500-bird standard.

But that rate is lower than the stocking densities at the NSW government-backed Tocal farm and college, an educational facility and commercial enterprise in the Hunter Valley under the auspices of the NSW department of primary industries. It has 90,000 hens in sheds covering 8,762 m2, with 15 hectares for them to use as a free range run, and supplies eggs under contract to Pace Farms.

Hens in the barns at Tocal farm in the Hunter Valley. Source: Tocal College

Arriving at a national standard has taken two years and NSW “better regulation” minister Victor Dominello, whose state led the way in developing a national code, said it was a “sensible outcome”.

“About 13 million eggs are consumed each day in Australia and demand is continuing to grow. Eggs labelled as free range sell at a premium and our decision today means consumers can be sure they’ve got what they’ve paid for,” Dominelli said.

The Australian industry is worth more than $800 million in retail sales annually with free-range eggs attracting a premium price and now making up nearly half the market.

But the issue of defining free-range has been vexed for some time. One of the largest family-owned egg producers in NSW, Pirovic, was fined $300,000 in 2014 for misleading conduct over “free-range” labelling following legal action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

The consumer watchdog launched legal action against a number of egg producers in recent years and rejected a proposal from the Australian Egg Corporation to allow 20,000 birds per hectare to be defined as free-range on the grounds it may mislead consumers.

Outdoor stocking densities – the number of hens per hectare – will need to be prominently displayed on packaging under the new rules. A “safe harbour” defence will also be introduced to provide clarity for egg producers on enforcement of the new standards.

And while the chickens are housed in barns at a higher density, the free-range definition applies to their ability to head outdoors. Under the new rules, the hens must have “meaningful and regular access to the outdoors”.

But consumer advocacy group Choice has labelled the new definition a “rip-off”, claiming consumers are spending $43 million annually on misleadingly labelled eggs.

The group is calling for a boycott of eggs from farms stocked at 10,000 birds per hectare.

CHOICE spokesperson Tom Godfrey said the new definition suited “the commercial interests of the big industrialised egg producers” and did not tackle the issue of allowing the birds to go outside.

That issue was central to the ACCC’s prosecution of Pirovic, which admitted that most of its hens did not move about freely on an open range on most days.

Godfrey said the new rules “fail the common sense test”.

“All you need to do is look at egg cartons labelled free-range in any major supermarket to see how these products are marketed to Australians, with pictures of chickens outside,” he said.

“Unfortunately, consumer affairs ministers today voted to lock-in misleading free-range egg labels, and that is why we are calling for consumers to boycott these product.

“While we welcome the requirement for consistent display of stocking densities on egg cartons, if a standard does not require birds to go outside then why does it matter how much space they have?

Godfrey said there was no clear explanation of what “meaningful and regular access” to the outdoors meant.

“The definition of free-range as hens having ‘meaningful and regular access to the outdoors’ could allow producers to call their eggs free-range even if chickens stay inside a barn all day,” he said.

“A standard with integrity would require that most hens go outside on most ordinary days.”

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