Australian consumers will get their eggs under clearer guidelines after the government announced it’s agreed to new national standards for the labelling of “free range eggs.”
The standard will be legally enforceable under Australian consumer law from next year. It states that eggs can be labelled free range if hens have “meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range” and an outdoor “stocking density” of up to 10,000 birds per hectare.
The stocking density of the hens – the number of hens per hectare – will also be labelled on the pack.
The new standard also follows action by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) against several egg producers, who it alleged had misled consumers about whether their eggs were truly free range.
But the new definition of free range could perpetuate confusion and controversy for consumers.
Under the standard, eggs labelled free range will need to come from hens that have access to the outdoors. But the hens won’t necessarily actually go outdoors.
Most free-range eggs on supermarket shelves come from production systems where hens are housed in large sheds of 20,000 or more birds, with access to the outdoors via openings along the sides of the sheds. A relatively small number of birds may be outdoors at any time, depending on a range of factors including the size of the flock, the design of the barn, the number of openings, and the conditions outdoors.
Barns vs “Enriched Cages”
Many consumer and animal welfare advocates have argued that the term “free range” should be reserved for smaller systems, where hens range on pasture and where all hens are able to express natural behaviours such as foraging, pecking and dust bathing.
The ACCC‘s view is that eggs labelled free range should come from egg farms where “most hens move about freely outdoors on most ordinary days.”
Large producers have argued that the ACCC’s definition of free range is unworkable and that their production systems are designed to give hens “the freedom to choose whether or not to go outside”. The new standard supports this position, enabling eggs to be labelled as free range as long as hens have “meaningful and regular access” to the outdoors.
The stocking density of hens has also been a controversial issue in the debate about free range. The stocking densities of free-range hens vary from 1,500 birds per hectare or less, for small production systems, to 10,000 birds or more per hectare for large systems.
Smaller producers, the consumer group Choice and the Australian Greens have all argued that eggs labelled free range should have a maximum stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare. This is the outdoor stocking density recommended for free-range hens under the Model Code of Practice, the official national animal welfare guideline for poultry.
Choice has called the new standard “meaningless” and has called on consumers to boycott supermarket eggs with stocking densities of 10,000 hens per hectare.
For consumers, the confusion around free range looks set to continue. Multiple definitions of free range will still exist. The Australian Capital Territory has already introduced egg-labelling laws that define free range as 1,500 birds per hectare or less, and some brands and supermarkets will seek to differentiate their free-range eggs with different stocking densities.
Consumer protection will also arguably be weaker under the new standard, as it will provide producers who meet the standard with a safe harbour against ACCC action for misleading consumers.
Consumers will need to look at egg labels carefully. A stocking density of 1,500 or less may be the only clue to indicate that eggs are likely to have been produced under a small-scale free-range system, where most hens have access to the outdoors.
Producers may be “winner”
On the face of it, Vesna Luketic is a winner in the free-range egg fracas that broke out this week.
The Age reported that the agreement will allow big producers free range status whilst maintaining a bird density of up to 10,000 per hectare – or a chicken per square metre.
There will be conditions attached – to be made clear over the next 12 months – and the bird density must be included on the package labelling.
Ms Luketic’s Family Homestead 15,000 chickens have a not-so squeezy life of 750 birds per hectare – more than 10 times the room to scratch around than Coles own-brand, free range chickens that, according to Choice, are run at 10,000 per hectare.
Ms Luketic’s are also presumably happier because they don’t suffer de-beaking or beak trimming. Bigger producers, with higher bird densities, need to trim their birds’ beaks to avoid the animals pecking each other to death – aggression caused by them living at such close quarters.
Three years ago, as Coles and other big producers were lobbying for a less stringent definition of free range – that is, for the federal government to make a ruling as was declared this week – Vesna Luketic was bemoaning that Family Homestead eggs, at $9 per dozen, were struggling in an unfair face-off against the Coles free-range brand which sold at less than half that price.
The new labelling laws will go some way to address that situation. Still, she and the other dozen members of the Free Range Farmers Association – a not-for-profit group of commercial egg farmers operating in Victoria, under a stringent code of conduct that is policed by regular inspections by an agronomist, are horrified by the government’s ruling.
Ten thousand birds per hectare, they say, is not sustainable or responsible farming. Leaving animal welfare concerns aside, they point to the pickling of the soil by so much hen manure, which is essentially ammonia. Leached into the ground, it leads to a poisoning of waterways, says Ms Luketic.
“It’s a lot of work to prevent this with just 750 birds per hectare,” she says.
Family Homestead regularly rotates its sheds, and has a system where the manure is gathered and composted. This also reduces the problem of insect infestation.
Dianne Moore is the president of the Free Range Farmers Association. She runs a modest 600 birds that produce about 350 eggs per days. She sells her eggs at a number of farmers’ markets .
“I always sell out unless it’s pouring rain” – and so isn’t commercially bothered by what the supermarkets are doing.
She agrees that even 750 birds per hectare won’t work unless they are intensively managed.
It’s unbelievable what the government has agreed to.”
She flew to Canberra in November to take part in the consultative process.
There were two or three big meetings. We all had a big say but we weren’t listened to. I think they had already made up their mind … because the supermarkets were there but we never heard them say a thing. Choice and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) were there … and they were on our side, if you like.”
The ACCC will reportedly police the new arrangements focusing on bird density, which plays a central role in the new regulations. But when the ACCC in 2014 successfully prosecuted a big producer for misleading consumers, bird density wasn’t the issue.
The Federal Court, when fining Pirovic Enterprises $300,000, found the company, by labelling and promoting their eggs as “free range”, represented to consumers that the eggs were produced by hens which were able to move about freely on an open range each day. In fact, as Pirovic admitted, most of its hens did not move about freely on an open range on most days.
The new federal agreement requires producers to provide “meaningful access” to open areas for birds. What this means in practical terms, and how it will be policed, is yet to be revealed.
Photo credit: Animals Australia