For almost two years, former egg farmer John Garnett got away with selling cage eggs as free range. Close to 2.5 million falsely labelled eggs were sold through supermarkets and other outlets. The retail value of the eggs was estimated at over $1 million.

Garnett was able to get away with the con for so long because it appears no one – including the retailers who sold the eggs – was checking his claims were genuine.

Since Garnett’s sentencing in August (see “Caught out”, below), the Commerce Commission has received information about potential breaches of the Fair Trading Act by other egg producers. The commission says the information is being assessed but hasn’t resulted in any investigation to date.

With more brands chasing the free-range dollar, whose claims can you trust?

Premium eggs

Most eggs still come from hens housed in battery cages. But consumer demand has seen supermarket sales of free-range eggs leap by around 24 percent in the last two years.

Industry figures show sales were worth $52 million last year, making up around 30 percent of the supermarket egg trade. Eggs that carry a free-range label command a premium, retailing for around twice the price of cage eggs.

But not all free-range eggs are created equal. While the label may conjure up images of hens raised the old-fashioned way, your eggs could come from a small farm with a few hundred chooks or a large-scale operation stocking thousands of birds.

Minimum standards

The minimum standards egg farmers are expected to meet are set out in the code of welfare for layer hens.

Revamped in 2012, the code sets an outdoor stocking density for free-range production of 2500 hens per hectare but there’s no maximum flock size. Glenpark Woodland, the largest free-range brand in supermarkets, puts its flock size at 7500 to 8000 birds per shed.

Management of the hens’ outdoor range area is expected to ensure they go outside frequently. The code recommends as “best practice” – though doesn’t prescribe – that the range area should provide trees, shrubs or other shelter to encourage the birds to leave the barn.

But failure to comply with the code itself isn’t an offence. The code’s purpose is to provide “guidance” to farmers. Compliance isn’t routinely monitored.

Farms are audited by the Ministry for Primary Industries to check they’re meeting food safety standards. But the ministry’s role doesn’t extend to checking free-range label claims. Official visits to John Garnett’s farm failed to unearth his 20-month fraud. Garnett’s farm was audited four times during the period of his offending. Corrective actions were required on two occasions but none related to labelling.

Michael Brooks, executive director of the Egg Producers Federation, said it was information it passed on that eventually helped lead to an investigation of Garnett’s claims.

Ticked off

Farmers who opt for independent certification for their free-range eggs will be subject to additional checks. Certification doesn't necessarily mean the eggs are the "best" available: what it should tell you is the farm has been independently audited and meets the certification scheme's rules.

Certification to organic standards – such as AsureQuality Organic and BioGro – is one option. Both schemes require the birds to be free range. AsureQuality also sets a limit of 1500 birds per barn. BioGro sets an outdoor stocking density of 833 hens per hectare.

Eggs certified by the schemes will carry the scheme logo on the pack (see our “Egg brands” table).

The SPCA's “Blue Tick” is the other main standard. It’s less demanding than organic standards and allows much higher flock sizes (5000 birds per barn).

The Blue Tick is available for free-range and barn-laid eggs. The SPCA’s Janine Hampson-Tindale said producers were audited at least annually to check they were complying with the standard. Farmers pay the SPCA royalties, based on a percentage of their sales.

In the last year, one company has withdrawn from the programme. Sunset Free Range director Gareth Manning said it ended its involvement because it wasn’t happy the SPCA had given the Blue Tick to several free-range brands sold by a company, Wholesome NZ, which also produced cage eggs.

The SPCA has previously said it wouldn't give the Blue Tick to companies which produce cage eggs because it believed they undermined the free-range market. Ms Hampson-Tindale said it has made an exception in this case because Wholesome NZ was planning to remove cages from its production line.

Three of the eight brands which have the Blue Tick are marketed by Wholesome NZ. The company’s shareholders include Whanganui-based Ian Higgins Poultry Farm and Benniks Poultry Farm in Levin. Ian Higgins, Wholesome NZ chief executive, said there was a five-year timeframe for phasing out cage production on the Whanganui farm, the source of the company’s cage eggs.

True to label?

It’s an offence under the Fair Trading Act for traders to make unsubstantiated product claims. This means there’s an onus on companies making free-range claims to prove they stack up.

But the likelihood of farmers getting away with misleading claims would be reduced if compliance with the code of welfare was monitored. Proposed changes to the Animal Welfare Act may finally make the code’s minimum standards binding.

Amendments to the Act are still waiting to be passed and it’s not yet clear how they’ll be enforced. Given the Ministry for Primary Industries’ existing audit role, an obvious option is to make it responsible for monitoring compliance with the code of welfare and publicly reporting on shortfalls.

We say

  • Consumer demand has seen sales of free-range eggs soar. But there’s no routine monitoring of product claims.
  • Farmers and retailers selling free-range eggs have a responsibility to prove their products are genuine. Otherwise, they risk breaching the Fair Trading Act.