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.
These large-scale free-range production systems do not necessarily improve the health and welfare of hens compared with barn systems (sheds with no openings to the outdoors) or “enriched cages” (group cages designed to enable hens to express some natural behaviours).
The conditions that produce free-range eggs at large scale and low price will inevitably lead to overcrowding and inadequate supervision at times, and this may lead to cannibalism and other problems.
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.
However, regular access doesn’t necessarily mean that hens will regularly go outside. And if they don’t go outside, how meaningful is their access?
How many hens?
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.
The new labelling standard will set a maximum outdoor stocking density for free-range hens of 10,000 birds per hectare, which is the typical stocking density of many large producers who supply to the major supermarkets, contrary to the Model Code.
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.