Free range  eggs may not be all they are cracked up to be.
Free range eggs may not be all they are cracked up to be. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

Larissa Nicholson

When you pick up a carton of free-range eggs at the supermarket, how do you know whether the hens that produced those eggs are free-ranging as happily as you might imagine? Egg lovers may be surprised to learn there is no mandated standard.

A fortnight ago, the Australian Egg Corporation was rebuffed in its attempt to allow up to 20,000 chickens a hectare in free-range operations. In its assessment, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said a standard that allowed that density of birds might ''mislead or deceive consumers'' about free-range egg production.

Professor at the Centre for Regulatory Studies at Monash University in Melbourne Christine Parker, who spoke recently in Canberra about the standard, applauded the commission's decision.

Standards expert Professor Christine Parker  of Monash University
Standards expert Professor Christine Parker of Monash University

It comes as Canberra's cage-egg farm limps only slowly towards conversion. Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced a $7.5 million deal in July to help Pace convert from cage to barn-egg production, but last week the detail was yet to be signed off. Barr said a deed outlining arrangements would be signed mid-November.

It would give Pace 3½ years to convert to barn, but work was expected to be completed progressively over the time, he said.

Pace would be required to comply with the Commonwealth code of practice, which sets a maximum density of 30 kilograms a square metre. If a bird were four kilograms, that would allow seven or so hens in each square metre.

For free-range egg chickens, the code specifies an outside space with a maximum of 1500 birds a hectare. While it's not compulsory, Parker says this is the standard used by the corporation.

But a clause in the code complicates matters, allowing a higher bird density ''where regular rotation of birds on to fresh range areas occurs and close management is undertaken, which provides some continuing fodder cover''.

Whether this exception applies to layer hens or only those raised for meat is the subject of debate. The corporation applies it to egg producers, with the result that many of the eggs labelled free range on supermarket shelves are produced by hens in conditions more crowded than 1500 birds a hectare.

The Australian Egg Corporation managing director, James Kellaway, says stocking densities under the code of practice mean little, which is why the corporation pushed for a cap, at 20,000 a hectare.

''In reality, AECL believes the [code of practice] standard is limitless. AECL does not agree with this. We believe a realistic cap or maximum density should be put in place and enforced to preserve the welfare of the hen, access to free range eggs for everyone and to keep them affordable. Given, in reality, that the [code of practice] standard is limitless, our standard will still comply.''

The corporation's figures show 29 per cent of eggs labelled free range are produced by hens with less than half a square metre each in their outside area - which is more hens per hectare than the new cap of 20,000 that it was seeking.

Hens classified as free range under the code of practice can have their beaks trimmed, and whether or not you believe it hurts them depends on which side of the debate you sit.

Parker says there is a danger of ''free-range'' hens being kept in barns with two or three levels in conditions too crowded for them to move in and out, so essentially they live indoors.

Kellaway disputes the claim. ''Unlike some efforts to suggest otherwise, our minimum standard reflects the requirements contained in the [code],'' he says. ''In essence, the minimum

standard means that the larger the shed, the larger the area must be for birds to enter and exit the shed. Egg farmers who are licensees to our minimum standards are audited independently by a third party.''

The corporation has produced YouTube videos, which it says show hens kept at two per square metre, pecking among long grass and looking pretty relaxed, it would seem.

But the current living conditions of many ''free-range'' hens bear little resemblance to the idyllic conditions consumers might imagine, Parker says, and the way the eggs are marketed does little to change that perception.

''There's lots of [egg cartons] with pictures of green grass and sunshine and, really, if you've got 20,000 hens on a range, there's not going to be much green grass, and that's not their primary food any way,'' she says.

''I wouldn't say they're being purposefully misleading necessarily, but they're kind of selling a story that makes you feel good, that the hens have had a nice life and you're eating a healthy egg that's got all this sunshine and grass that's gone into it.''

Parker says things are no better in the ACT. Despite laws that dictate supermarkets use shelf-labelling to mark cage, barn and free-range eggs, the same industry standards apply, which means, as long as farmers are rotating the outdoor areas where hens are free to venture, they can be held in crowded conditions.

''I went around and looked at what's available [in Canberra] and it's pretty much the same [as in other states],'' Parker says. ''If you want something that's a higher standard, you've got to go to farmers' markets, or an organic food grocer.''

She was pleasantly surprised by the commission's rejection of the corporation's 20,000 proposal. ''It was good to see them actually paying attention to whether consumers were being mislead, and whether the standard was a reasonable standard,'' she says. She expects the initial assessment to stick, given its decisiveness.

But the ACCC is undertaking another month of consultation, and Kellaway was still hopeful of getting the 20,000 cap approved.

''While [the] decision is only an initial assessment, we are confident that there is overwhelming evidence in favour of the new standards. We will continue to work with the ACCC to ensure the trade mark certification is achieved for the benefit of consumers, industry and hen welfare,'' he says.

Parker would like to see a strict stocking density cap of 1500 or 2000 for free range hens and she says it was just as important to look at how the birds' outdoor area was managed, and whether it was continually revegetating.

But she says for farmers to provide eggs at the price supermarkets want, they need fairly intense production.

''I think [the industry] is going to have to make the stocking density lower, but they're going to have to try to make it as high as they can, as the ACCC will accept,'' she says.

With the lack of clarity around the definitions, Parker says the best way to know your eggs are the product of happy hens is to research their origins. Farmers' markets are a good option because they give people the opportunity to talk to the farmers, and some provide pictures of how their hens are kept.

''The supermarkets are operating on a model that almost kind of requires this kind of industrial free range, so I think we just need a lot more options of smaller retailers we can go to where we can buy products that have come from smaller scale, nearer farms, and we can actually find out some information about the farm,'' she says.

Larissa Nicholson is a staff reporter.