New South Wales’ fair trading department has been asked to investigate potentially misleading free-range egg claims after consumer watchdog Choice found that consumers are paying double the price of cage eggs for what is says products that are unlikely to meet their expectations.
In a submission under a super-complaint process with NSW Fair Trading, Choice provided evidence that “dodgy” free-range eggs appear to be major rip-off for consumers. Super-complaints require a public response within 90 days.
Lacking free-range standards
Despite commanding a significant price premium, the watchdog says 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’s Angela McDougall.
“Our research has shown that consumers purchasing free-range eggs expect that 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.”
The 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 said consistency and veracity in labelling were critical because consumers pay a premium in the belief the products meet their expectations.
No stocking standard
On a national level, a model code 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.
Meanwhile, the South Australian Government recently 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.