Will free-range egg claims crack under the spotlight?

NSW Fair Trading has been asked to investigate potentially misleading “free-range” egg claims after CHOICE found that consumers are paying double the price of cage eggs for products that are unlikely to meet their expectations.

In a submission under its super-complaint trial with NSW Fair Trading, CHOICE provided evidence that dodgy free-range eggs appear to be major rip-off for consumers. Despite commanding a significant price premium, there are no enforceable standards governing free-range claims in NSW.

“Cracks are beginning to appear in the free-range egg market, which accounts for around 40% of eggs sold in Australia, with considerable variation in the conditions in which supposedly free-range chickens are kept,” said CHOICE Lead Campaigner Angela McDougall.

“CHOICE research has shown that consumers purchasing free-range eggs expect that the layer hens have access to the outdoors and space to move around with limits on the number of birds on the outdoor range – but the Australian Egg Corporation itself has admitted there is huge variation in the conditions in supposedly free-range operations,” Ms McDougall said.

CHOICE’s super-complaint recognises that food labelling is an important means of communicating product information to consumers. With credence claims like free-range, the consumer group says consistency and truth in labelling are critical because consumers pay a premium in the belief the products meet
their expectations.

In order to protect consumers, CHOICE has recommended that NSW Fair Trading further investigate free-range egg claims and take action where it finds evidence these claims are likely to mislead NSW consumers. A response from NSW Fair Trading is expected before the end of the year, in accordance with the super-complaint trial agreement.

“We commend the NSW Government and Minister Anthony Roberts for their ongoing commitment to the super-complaints trial, which has the potential to become a powerful tool in protecting consumers’ interests. CHOICE hopes that NSW Fair Trading will agree with the concerns outlined in the super-complaint, and take action to give consumers confidence around free-range claims in NSW,”
Ms McDougall said.

At the national level, there is a model code that defines “free-range” by a stocking density of no more than 1,500 birds per hectare. However, the Australian Egg Corporation has been pushing for a stocking density of 20,000 birds per hectare. Further confusion was created when the Queensland Government earlier this year increased the stocking density from 1,500 to 10,000 birds per hectare.

But in good news for consumers, the South Australian Government has just announced an industry code that would see eggs certified free-range only if they meet a maximum stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare.

Egg price comparison:

The average price per 100g of eggs from each production method was:

  • Cage eggs: 43c/100g
  • Barn eggs: 80c/100g
  • Free-range eggs: 93c/100g

Note: CHOICE compared the prices and claims of eggs for sale in Coles Leichhardt on 24 August 2012.