Consumer demand for free-range eggs saw supermarket sales jump 16% in 2016. Revenue topped $80 million, up from $68 million in 2015. But while sales are booming, our latest survey found shoppers aren’t confident the eggs they’re buying are all they’re cracked up to be.

Three out of 4 consumers buy free-range eggs at least some of the time. For more than a quarter (28%), free-range is the only type in their supermarket trolley.

Shoppers opting for free range pay a premium. A dozen free-range eggs cost more than twice the price of eggs from hens kept in cages. While many shoppers are prepared to pay extra for eggs from hens raised the old-fashioned way, just 1 in 5 feel sure they’re always getting what they pay for.

No standard definition

Rising demand has led to a flurry of free-range brands vying for consumers’ cash. About 30 brands touting free-range claims can be found on supermarket shelves, double the number in 2010.

However, there’s no standard definition of what free range means. Shoppers have to rely largely on the carton claims when they’re choosing which eggs to buy.

Shoppers have to rely largely on the carton claims when they’re choosing which eggs to buy.
Shoppers have to rely largely on the carton claims when they’re choosing which eggs to buy.

Regular purchasers think “free range” should mean the hens spend most of the day roaming outside. Most consider a reasonable flock size to be 500 to 1500 birds. But many free-range egg brands are unlikely to meet these expectations.

The only requirements free-range farmers must meet are set out in the code of welfare for layer hens, developed under the Animal Welfare Act. The code states hens should have access to an outdoor range area. It sets a stocking density of 2500 birds per hectare – that’s about one chook on a king-sized bed.

The code doesn’t set a maximum flock size – and numbers can vary from a few hundred to several thousand birds. Whether the birds venture outside depends on the numbers in the barn and their access to the range area.

AsureQuality’s organic standard caps free-range flock numbers at 1500 birds. Companies with the SPCA’s Blue Tick are allowed flocks of up to 5000 hens. (See certification marks.)

Woodland, owned by Mainland Poultry and the largest free-range brand in supermarkets, permits 7500 to 8000 birds in a barn.

Mainland has also bought eggs from other farmers, including Palace Poultry, to sell under its Woodland and Farmer Brown brands. In March, allegations emerged Palace Poultry had sold cage eggs as free range. Palace Poultry eggs have since disappeared from shop shelves but the Serious Fraud Office is investigating the allegations.

Faux free-range

The Palace Poultry saga hit the headlines just 3 years after Northland egg farmer John Garnett was convicted for falsely labelling cage eggs as free range and barn laid. Garnett sold close to 2.5 million fake free-range eggs, at an estimated value of $1 million, before he was found out.

The case tarnished the industry and highlighted the lack of market monitoring.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) inspects egg farms annually to check they’re meeting food safety standards. But these inspections don’t extend to checking packaging claims, even though the Food Act, which MPI enforces, makes it an offence for food labels to mislead consumers.

The upshot is that unless farmers opt for independent certification, there’s no guarantee anyone’s checking whether your eggs come from hens genuinely free to range.

Egg stamps

Michael Brooks, executive director of the Egg Producers Federation, thinks stamping free-range eggs at source could be the solution.

He says the federation is still looking at costs and details of how it will work. Options include stamping eggs with a farm identification number and a code to indicate they’re from a free-range flock. But the idea will need farmers’ buy-in. Recommendations have yet to be put to the federation’s members, he says.

Egg stamps have been introduced in the EU and Australia to improve traceability. Since 2012, Australia has required eggs to carry a stamp with a farm identification number.

However, stamping isn’t foolproof. Without independent auditing, the system can be exploited and fake free-range eggs may still turn up on the market.

Mr Brooks says the industry is looking at farm audits to minimise the risk of another Garnett case. Audits would check the farm’s free-range egg output corresponded with the number of hens on the property. But who would undertake the audits and whether results would be made public is not clear.

Our view

Consumers bear the costs when they pay extra for eggs that aren’t true to label or that don’t meet their expectations for what free range should mean. Better labelling rules are needed to ensure shoppers can make an informed choice about what they’re buying.

We’re calling for a mandatory consumer information standard for free-range claims. The Fair Trading Act provides for these standards to be developed to specify information manufacturers have to disclose to consumers. Failure to comply with the standards is an offence.