A Charles Sturt University (CSU) expert in poultry behaviour and welfare claims the new national standard for labelling free-range eggs fails both consumers and producers.
Under the new labelling standard announced yesterday, eggs can be labelled free-range with a stocking density of up to 10,000 hens per hectare on the range.
Dr Raf Freire from CSU's School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences said, "It is astonishing for the consumer affairs ministers to put forward a proposal which increases the stocking density on the range by over 6 fold, from the minimum standard as set out in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Poultry of 1,500 hens per hectare, and claim that it will improve consumer confidence.
"More alarmingly, appears to be the failure to mention the factors that are actually really important in determining how much hens use the outdoor range.
"These are flock size, shelter on the range and pop-hole design and availability. Careful consideration of these is critical in ensuring hens use the outdoor range.
"When consumers pay extra for free-range eggs, they assume that the hens have been able to roam in an outdoor area.
"The reality, as highlighted by my recent review on ranging behaviour in commercial free-range hens published in the World's Poultry Science Journal, is that the percentage of hens on the range rarely exceeds 50 per cent and is sometimes less than ten per cent, with some hens never venturing outside at all."
Dr Freire has queried the value of the announcement that free-range egg producers will have to disclose the stocking density on the range on the label.
"High outdoor stocking density affects bird health by increasing exposure to intestinal worms and parasitic load," he said. "Under the new labelling laws consumers could thereby select eggs from what they might consider to be healthier hens, but stocking density on the range tells you virtually nothing about how likely hens are to actually use the range."
However, Dr Freire argued the opportunity to provide clear and objective standards for egg producers has been missed.
"In my conversation with farmers it is clear that they want unambiguous information of what constitutes free-range egg farming," said Dr Freire.
"The press release announcing the new standards talks about the requirement for hens to have 'meaningful' access to the outdoors.
"How are farmers, or anyone else for that matter, supposed to know what 'meaningful' access to the outdoors is for a chicken?
"There are a number of well-established metrics that are used for on-farm assessment of welfare, such as estimating the percentage of hens on the range at any one time.
"Some of these could have been adopted to provide an objective, quantifiable standard to farmers to remove the distress that they experience due to the lack of clear information on what constitutes a free-range hen."Dr Freire is also a member of theGraham Centre for Agricultural Innovation.
Read more about his research into the welfare of layer henshere.