Choice concerned about eggs

Posted by Isobel Drake on 30th June 2008

Leading consumer advocate, CHOICE, claims there is an urgent need for a clear and national description of free-range eggs after their investigation found the big producers have redefined the term to suit themselves. Their study also found issues with the freshness levels of free range eggs sold.

CHOICE advises there’s no legal definition of ‘free-range’ eggs and the Australian Egg Corporation’s standards don’t meet those recommended by animal welfare organisations. “We need tighter regulation of the term free-range. Well over half the hens described as free-range are housed in huge sheds, may never go outside and their eggs may come off conveyor belts,” said CHOICE spokesman Christopher Zinn.

While the European Union has enforceable standards in Australia there are only voluntary standards set by the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA), Biological Farmers of Australia and animal welfare groups including the RSPCA – according to CHOICE.

The Australian Egg Corporation, which represents 90% of producers, has a quality assurance scheme which includes free-range egg production but its standards allow more birds per square metre of shed or range area than others.

The scheme, called Egg Corp Assured, allows 14 birds per square metre in the shed, FREPAA standards only seven and EU guidelines no more than nine. By comparison cage systems, which supply more than two-thirds of the eggs sold in supermarkets, allow the space equivalent of 18 birds per square metre. The issue of what constitutes free range has been in the public limelight in Europe in recent years, particularly in the wake of the campaign against battery hens led by popular chef Jamie Oliver.

“CHOICE bought every brand of free-range egg we could find across much of the country and only one was independently certified by an agency apart from the Egg Corporation. One of the larger producers said the other certifiers set ‘unreasonable conditions’,” Mr Zinn reported.

Of almost 700 free-range eggs tested 36% failed an internationally recognised test for freshness, being described as “weak and watery”. CHOICE also wants to see eggs stamped with the date on which they were packed instead of unreliable best-before dates.