If you shop at a major supermarket, be it Coles, Woolworths, ALDI or IGA, there's a decent chance you've never bought a "genuine" CSIRO-standard free-range egg.
Fairfax visited five supermarkets: two Woolworths stores, two Coles and an IGA. Out of nearly 30 products labelled "free range" at those vendors, only three met the definition as endorsed by the CSIRO and RSPCA.
At both Woolworths stores, you couldn't find a single brand that met the code, despite many being labelled free range. Fairfax used an app developed by consumer advocate CHOICE, Cluck AR, to scan the supermarket's eggs sections to determine which products met the code.
In fact, according to CHOICE, only 10 products out of 46 labelled free-range for sale at Coles or Woolworths nationally meet the CSIRO/RSPCA code. Together the two supermarkets sell 67 different egg products, including cage and barn-laid, according to grocery tracker Grocery Cop.
These products are not available in all Woolworths and Coles stores, with many smaller stores not carrying the full range. Fairfax visited a large flagship store in Melbourne and could not find any eggs that met the code. Neither Coles nor Woolworths' homebrand or select ranges - which are stocked at nearly every supermarket - meet the code, despite being labelled free range.
Where can I buy "genuine" free-range eggs?
The vast majority of 'free-range' eggs for sale at Coles and Woolworths come from producers who have a stocking density of 10,000 birds per hectare, the legal maximum that allows eggs to still be labelled free range.
A CSIRO draft code, endorsed by the RSPCA, says free-range hens should be stocked at no more than 1500 per hectare unless they are regularly rotated. Consumer watchdog CHOICE says only eggs that meet this standard can be considered "genuine" free-range.
A lower standard leaves hens suffering in unnatural conditions, the RSPCA says.
The Australian Egg Corporation, which backs the current government stocking density laws, says University of Sydney research indicates no difference in hen stress levels in cage or free-range environments. Supporters also point out 10,000 hens to a hectare is one hen per square metre, which is plenty of room they say.
The IGA Fairfax visited had only a single brand of eggs for sale, and they met the CSIRO/RSPCA standard. An IGA spokeswoman said the most stores source their own eggs locally.
Coles says it stocks six brands nationally that meet the CSIRO/RSPCA standard.
It's about choice - and CHOICE
The paucity of offerings illustrates a real problem with government standards for free range eggs.
After a lengthy battle between animal advocates and industrial egg producers, the government fixed the definition of free range at 10,000 hens per square hectare. New national laws will soon force egg producers to label products with their outdoor stocking density
"Consumers can now decide, 'Should I buy free range eggs at a lower density of 1500 or a higher density of 10,000? The point is, consumers can now decide," NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello said when the laws were announced.
But because the supermarkets barely stock products with a lower density, it is difficult for consumers to exercise that choice.
"When it comes to free range, the supermarkets have let down consumers and genuine free range farmers over many years," CHOICE spokesperson Tom Godfrey told Fairfax.
"The fact is Coles and Woolworths have the ability to end the free range rip-off by stocking more products that meet the CSIRO's Model Code. This would be good for genuine free range farmers and for consumers."
CHOICE has been running an active campaign against the way free-range eggs are labelled in Australia.