A new labelling rule aimed at giving Australian consumers information about free-range eggs may not be all it's cracked up to be, according to a Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic.
The new law defines free-range eggs as eggs laid by hens that have meaningful and regular access to the outdoors; are able to roam and forage outdoors; and are subject to a maximum outdoor stocking density of 10 000 hens per hectare.
This means the outdoor stocking density must be displayed on the packaging of free-range eggs.
Senior lecturer in the CSU School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences Dr Raf Freire said, "Listing outdoor stocking density on the packaging misses the point as to what's important for consumers and what's important for good free-range egg systems.
"When consumers buy free-range eggs, I believe they expect that the hens that laid the eggs would all be able to wander on an open range, every day.
"The reality is that under some conditions, it would be likely that only one out of the 12 eggs in a carton are from hens that accessed the range the previous day.
"It could be that as many as five eggs in each box are from hens that never venture outside at all."
The factors that determine whether hens leave the house to go on the range, or 'ranging behaviour', have been reviewed by Dr Freire and two colleagues from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom in an article published in the World's Poultry Science Journal.
Dr Freire said, "Contrary to what the new information standard may lead you to believe, the stocking density on the range has little influence on whether hens access the open range or not.
"Instead, the main factors that contribute to ranging behaviour are the number of birds in the shed and the number of openings to the range and their size.
"Large flocks require large sheds and the birds in these sheds find it difficult to reach the opening to the range, and this is made worse if there are few openings anyway.
"The result of a combination of large flock size and few opening is that few birds, sometimes as low as 10 per cent, will access the open range on any given day.
"There are systems used in Australia in which all birds range every day, and such systems often have small groups of hens kept in small, sometimes mobile houses. So how do consumers identify these eggs?"
Dr Friere explained that many producers dedicated to providing all their hens access to a range every day have informative websites that describe their systems and what they do.
"Overseas, these systems often belong to some type of 'welfare assurance scheme', which independently audits producers to make sure they meet strict standards, which are often far above minimum standards," he said.
"We're starting to see a few of these in Australia, but we need more in order to reassure consumers that free-range eggs all come from hens that have accessed an open range every day."
The article 'Factors affecting ranging behaviour in commercial free-range hens' was co-authored by Dr Issy Petterson (Bristol University), Dr Raf Freire (CSU), and Professor Christine Nicol (Bristol University) in the World's Poultry Science Journal, Vol. 72, March 2016, pp137-150.
The Australian Consumer Law (Free Range Egg Labelling) Information Standard 2017 can be found here.