State and territory governments will today be asked to agree to develop a national code for free-range eggs in a bid to stamp out misleading marketing and misinformation about the welfare of chickens.
Last year, an investigation by New South Wales Fair Trading found the rules for classifying eggs are ambiguous and that some of the most expensive free-range eggs have the highest stocking densities for chickens on farms.
Only the ACT and Queensland have standards for free-range and there is no enforceable national standard.
In the ACT, a stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare can be called free-range and Queensland recently raised its definition from 1,500 to 10,000 birds per hectare.
Coles has adopted a maximum stocking density of 10,000 birds per hectare for its own brand free-range eggs.
While the CSIRO's current model code of practice recommends a maximum of 1,500 birds per hectare, the investigation by NSW Fair Trading found that farms are commonly stocked at 20,000 chickens per hectare when they carry the free-range label.
A voluntary industry code allows stocking densities of up to 20,000 birds per hectare with guidelines on stock rotation, grass cover and access to shade.
Consumers face considerable confusion: NSW Fair Trading
NSW Commissioner for Fair Trading Rod Stowe says the current system is not good enough.
"Essentially it determined that there was potential for consumer detriment as a consequence of misrepresentations made in the way that free-range eggs were labelled," Mr Stowe told the ABC.
"We were particularly concerned that there was considerable confusion for consumers when it came to making those purchases and there was no clear definition of what free-range meant, so that one package may be very different in the type of production of those eggs compared to another."
NSW Fair Trading says a national code would be policed under Australian Consumer Law.
"I think, for consumers, it's one of those areas where they themselves can't test the veracity of those claims – they're very much dependent on the labelling," Mr Stowe said.
"While there are model codes for the way in which eggs are produced, there's still a lot of potential for difference and those codes aren't enforceable.
"They can be quite significant, in terms of those stocking densities, and there are considerable views in the way in which the code can be interpreted.
"I think, at the end of the day, it is really hard for anyone to determine how eggs are being produced in terms of the current labelling arrangements."
Consumer advocate Christopher Zinn says it is time the issue is sorted out.
"It's up to the regulators really to put the bit between their teeth and let's finally sort out this free-range mess," he told the ABC.
"All I want to see is a transparency in the market and a definition.
"There's been an endless debate about animal welfare and some people think they taste differently. What's important is that free-range actually means something.
"People have been kicking this into the long grass and saying it's too hard for too long. I think that's just a ridiculous notion. There's now a chance to achieve something."
Mass-produced eggs need to be called something else: farmers
Farmer Tania Murray from Hallora, east of Melbourne, has about 430 chickens on 1.2 hectares of land.
She sells about 300 dozen eggs each week at the local farmers' markets and is certified by Humane Choice as a free-range farmer.
"I think this is what consumers think is free-range when you say that you sell free-range eggs," she told the ABC.
"Humane Choice are the people that I'm accredited with. They come out and have a look – they're big on no de-beaked chickens, no mutilations of any sort, they have to be as they were hatched," she said.
"They come and check that the chickens can dust bathe and they're free to move about outside.
"I think what I've got here is the true free-range that consumers want, but if you've got 10,000 or 20,000 chickens on the same area there will be no grass left and it would just be a mud pit over winter.
"And if you've got more chickens that need to be de-beaked or beak trimmed, then just call it something else."
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has already taken court action against two egg producers for allegedly misleading consumers by using the term free-range.
John Coward from Queensland United Egg Producers says he can see the value in having a national standard.
"I think for the sake of clarity and accuracy and transparency for the consumer I can see the reason why we would want to have a national standard so it doesn't matter where you're buying your eggs, they're of a standard and out of production system that everybody's got comfort and confidence in," he told the ABC.
"I think that the model code of practice – which is currently under review and it's been 12 years since the last review – did set an appropriate standard, but it was probably not quite clear enough and it's not enforceable in every state's legislation. That's been the problem.
"From a Queensland perspective, we did set an upper limit of 10,000 birds per hectare, which is one per square metre, and we think that's appropriate. But it must be underpinned by outcomes on that farm.
"So the number becomes immaterial to some degree – it's about providing the adequate space for the birds to do their natural behaviour. It provides for the opportunity to keep the pasture clean and free of noxious weeds, provide adequate shade and adequate access from the shed, so the birds can get out and roam freely.
"While I do support a national standard, I really think when the ministers meet they should be really looking at an outcome-based set of legislation, which goes into the new review of the model code of practice.