Consumer Affairs Ministers from the Commonwealth, States and Territories in Australia have agreed to the introduction of an information standard requiring eggs labeled as “free range” to have been laid by hens with meaningful and regular access to the outdoors and with an outdoor stocking density of no more than 10,000 hens per hectare.

The standard also requires the prominent disclosure of the outdoor stocking density of hens laying free-range eggs, allowing consumers to compare easily the practices of different egg producers.

Welcoming the agreement, which will apply across the country, was the national egg producers’ organization, Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL). It said the decision by the Consumer Affairs Forum follows an extensive consultation process between government, regulators, the egg industry, representative associations and expert industry service bodies including the AECL.

Part of Australian Consumer Law, the new standard for the first time provides an enforceable, national requirement that producers must meet to label their eggs “free range,” and provides certainty to farmers whose “free range” claims comply with the information standard.

Ministers expressed their desire for the information standard to be in place within 12 months.

AECL’s Managing Director, James Kellaway, described the national consensus as “a win for both consumers and producers as it introduces a consistent regime nationwide and removes the uncertainty that has plagued the egg industry and the egg category for years”.

“It is pleasing to note that this “free range” egg labeling decision takes into account the findings of the independent consumer research undertaken and submitted in the consultation process by AECL,” Kellaway said. “The new definition is fundamentally about doing the right thing by consumers to ensure they can make informed decisions about what eggs they wish to buy based on known factors.

“The announcement confirms what AECL believes the vast majority of egg producers have been doing in practice now for many years. It also places a realistic cap on outdoor stocking densities when under the fourth edition of the Model Code of Practice – Domestic Poultry, there has been no cap or maximum density. This decision will permit greater competition and innovation among farmers of free range eggs.”

Opposition from RSPCA Australia

Animal welfare organization, RSPCA Australia, does not support the new standard, describing it as “a waste of time.”

Its senior policy officer, Dr. Jed Goodfellow, said the standard fails to provide the animal welfare assurances consumers were seeking.

“RSPCA Australia believes free-range hens should be stocked at a maximum rate of 1,500 hens per hectare or up to 2,500 if a regular rotation system is in place, “ Goodfellow said. “Free-range eggs should come from hens who actually go outside. The definition of “meaningful and regular access” to the range is absolutely critical to the integrity of the Information Standard.”

“Today’s decision puts the interests of big business ahead of consumers, with hen welfare coming a distant third,” he added. “Consumer Affairs Ministers must ensure that ‘meaningful’ access actually means something to the hen or else all of this has been a monumental waste of time.”