A representation of a high stocking density egg farm, compared with a ‘true’ free range egg farm.

The term ‘free range’ is an important one for people wishing to make more ethical meat and egg purchasing decisions, but (and it’s a big but), what does the term actually mean? Proposed industry changes may see already voluntary free range farming standards diluted even further, meaning that the term used by many consumers as a beacon to more ethical produce may be nothing more than empty words. Sustainable Table’s Sofia Strandberg explores the current ‘free range’ controversy…

If you’ve made the decision to eat more ethically, food labels on animal products are your best friend. The words ‘free’ and ‘range’, in particular, are vital inclusions. They let you know what you can buy with a clear conscience and what you should steer clear of. Or, do they? When it comes to food labelling in Australia, in particular the use of those precious two words, we’re entering muddy waters.

Why? Because in Australia and NZ there are no binding laws that define what free range actually means. As a result, accreditation bodies, of which Australia has six, apply their own definition of free range when accrediting farmers with that all important marker of ethical farming. Factors such as access to an outdoor area, stocking density, beak trimming and pasture cover, for instance, are all up for interpretation.

When it comes to eggs, Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL), which represents the Australian egg industry, runs the largest and most powerful accreditation body, accrediting 90% of producers. Their free range egg scheme allows for a stocking density of 1,500 chickens per hectare outdoors. Or, at least it used to.  In January 2011* AECL proposed to change their free range standards to allow 20,000 chickens per hectare, as well as allow previously banned beak trimming (where the front of the beak is cut off with a hot wire guillotine without anesthetic). Such high stocking densities are not environmentally sustainable and can hardly be considered free range as the chooks suffer from overcrowding.(1)

Phil Westwood, president of the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA), is a former accredited auditor for the AECL. He tells us that the industry has been happily operating with a limit of 1,500 birds per hectare for more than a decade. So why this sudden change?

With more and more people adopting ethical eating habits, businesses will increasingly try to reap the benefits of the free range demand. Sadly, these businesses are usually less keen to adopt true free range practices. Through clever marketing tactics and ambiguous wording, such as ‘access to outdoors’, these businesses convey a message of high standards of animal welfare, but in reality, they do not measure up to consumers’ expectations of free range. Currently in Australia chooks labelled free range can for example spend their entire lives crammed up indoors, never finding that little pophole that leads outside.

On top of this, AECL now claims that the cap of 1,500 has always been voluntary, which means that many producers that carry their ‘free range’ logo either lack an upper limit completely, or have a stocking density well above the 1,500 birds per hectare limit, with some farms stocking 40,000 chickens per hectare. At such a high density, each bird has roughly the space of an A4 sheet of paper, the same amount of space allocated to a caged bird.

FREPAA (whose upper limit is 750 birds per hectare) believes this idea of a stocking density loop hole has been made up by the AECL in response to pressure from big business. Phil Westwood said, “at no stage in the time I was an accredited auditor for the Egg Corp Assured program did AECL advise auditors that a stocking density greater that 1,500 birds per hectare could be accepted on a free range egg farm”.

FREPAA argues that consumers will be seriously misled if stocking density limits are raised to such a large number. The association has brought the matter to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) calling for 1,500 hens per hectare to be the legal maximum stocking density. To date, no decision has been made by the ACCC.

But it’s not just egg labelling that’s causing a stir. In January this year, the ACCC was asked to look into the RSPCA’s standards for pork products. The RSPCA, which is one of Australia’s most trusted brands when it comes to animal welfare, previously only found free range farmers worthy of their seal of approval. But in August last year they quietly removed any reference to free range from their standards, meaning there is the potential for their seal of approval to be carried by pork products where the pig has spent their entire life indoors and confined to a tiny pen.(2)

But there is hope. Chicken meat producer La Ionica was recently fined $100k by the Federal Court for misleading consumers by claiming their birds, which are raised indoors and in high density, were ‘free to roam’.

Also, in an attempt to stop producers from making false claims about their products, the NSW Greens has introduced the Truth in Labelling (Free Range Eggs) Bill. It aims to establish a standard definition for free range eggs and in October 2011 it successfully passed the NSW Upper House (although in a watered down version). For it to become law, it now needs Government backing in the Lower House.

Although it appears there are moves for similar action in Tasmania, South Australia and WA, nothing is happening in Victoria. According to FREPAA there is nowhere in the world where free range codes of practice or legislated rules allow more than about 2,000 birds per hectare. And in the EU the standards are enforced, not voluntary.

It’s not just the chooks that will be getting a raw deal.  Australian farmers will also be impacted. Most truly free range egg producers, many of which are family farms, would be wiped out if intensive farms are allowed to label the eggs they produce as ‘free range’.

So, while the current labelling system lacks enforceable standards, transparency and accountability, what can we do as consumers?

• Be sceptical of clever marketing tactics – if a free range product costs just a bit more than the ‘standard’ it probably isn’t truly free range

• Look for accreditation logos that you know meet our ethical standards – see our Free Range Chicken and Egg guide here.

• Buy animal products at a local farmers’ market or at a farm gate, where you can talk to the farmer directly.

• Write to your supermarket or local MP if you are passionate about the issue. Proof that consumer pressure works was seen when Coles agreed to ban the use of sow stalls on their own-brand pork products from 2014.

*The last we heard is that the new standard will be released in March.