Push for national approach to ‘free range’ eggs deepens

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 9th December 2013

New South Wales (NSW) Fair Trading has recommended a “binding national information standard” be developed under the Australian Consumer Law that sets a clear definition of “free-range”.

“A three month investigation by NSW Fair Trading has found the ground rules for classifying eggs is unclear and open to various interpretations,” said Rod Stowe, NSW Fair Trading Commissioner. “Free-range eggs account for nearly 40 per cent of the egg market, but trying to protect consumers from misinformation is difficult,” he said.

“The existing regulatory framework includes a voluntary Model Code co-ordinated by Federal and State agriculture and primary industry departments,” Mr Stowe said. “The Model Code is currently under review but it is not legally enforceable,” he said.

NSW Fair Trading said multiple industry accreditation schemes had led to different interpretations of “free-range”.

“As a result, different organisations have different stocking densities that define free-range,” Mr Stowe said. “The Model Code specifies a maximum of 1,500 fowl per hectare for free-range eggs, but also allows higher numbers where regular rotational activities are followed. Stock rotation means access to the outdoors and space to move around. Other organisations may not consider stocking density the priority but rather animal welfare requirements,” he said.

Working with NSW Fair Trading, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is investigating ‘free-range’ claims and has asked some producers for information on specific production systems, stocking densities, shed and outdoor dimensions and access holes to barns or sheds. The investigation comes after consumer group CHOICE made a ‘super-complaint’ in August 2013 about the ‘free-range’ egg market.

NSW Fair Trading said it had observed examples of egg packaging imagery that “seems inconsistent with the production system being used and consumer expectations”.

“Also, NSW Fair Trading found some of the highest priced free-range eggs actually have some of the highest stocking densities,” Mr Stowe said. “Ultimately trying to protect the consumer and their rights is difficult when the ground rules are not clear. The potential for customers to suffer detriment due to misleading ‘free-range’ labelling has been established and NSW Fair Trading understands the ACCC is currently pursuing a number of inquiries relating to ‘free-range’ egg claims,” he said.

“The ambiguous and uncertain definition of free-range, barn or cage eggs makes enforcement difficult,” Mr Stowe said. “NSW Fair Trading recommends a binding national information standard be developed under the Australian Consumer Law that sets a clear definition of ‘free-range’ and a minimum labelling requirement,” he said.

CHOICE welcomes push for national standard

CHOICE has welcomed the call for a national standard for ‘free-range’ egg claims.

“We have repeatedly called for a nationally consistent and enforceable standard for ‘free-range’ eggs to stop consumers being misled by shonky claims,” said Angela Cartwright, CHOICE Campaigns Manager. “We presented evidence to NSW Fair Trading that dodgy ‘free-range’ egg claims are leading to major rip-offs, with these products costing up to twice as much as cage eggs despite the wide variation in how they are produced,” she said.

CHOICE said the push for an enforceable national standard was “great new for consumers”.

“This crackdown on dodgy free-range claims is long overdue and we welcome NSW Fair Trading’s commitment to protecting the growing numbers of Australians who pay a premium for these products,” Ms Cartwright said.

Egg category sales in Australia

According to market research organisation Nielsen’s ‘Retail World Grocery Guide 2012’, the ‘free-range’ egg category accounted for 39 per cent of value share in 2012 and 28.4 per cent volume share, compared with 47.6 per cent value share and 61.6 per cent volume share for cage eggs.

Barn eggs accounted for 10 per cent value share and 8.2 per cent volume share, and organic eggs accounted for 2.6 per cent value share and 1.2 per cent volume share in 2012.

Major players in the $209.6 million ‘free-range’ category in 2012 included Pace Farm (18.3 per cent value, 16.5 per cent volume), Manning Valley (12.5 per cent value, 11.3 per cent volume), and Novo (11.2 per cent value and 10.5 per cent volume).

Push for national 'free-range' egg standard grows