Australian consumers increasingly choose to buy ‘free range’ eggs in support of animal welfare (despite paying higher prices). However the task of determining whether eggs are truly free range has become a rising concern for consumers. Only last year, a major egg producer in the Australian market was penalised $1 million AUD after contravening Australian Consumer Law (ACL) by falsely labelling their eggs as free range, when it was found that the sheds were overstocked and the hens did not get to roam outside.
The uncertainty for consumers lies not only in trusting the accuracy of egg carton labels but also being aware of the legal definition of ‘free range.’ As a result, the Government has decided to introduce a new National Information Standard so that consumers will be able to make informed choices between different brands of eggs on supermarket shelves. The new information standard on Free Range Egg Labelling came into effect on 26 April 2018 (the Standard).
The key points included in the Standard are:
- A definition of ‘free range’ eggs: the hens must have meaningful access to the outdoor range during the day and the ability to roam on that range, which must have a stocking density (hens per hectare) of 10 000 or less.
- Rules for Packaging: the Standard restricts use of the term ‘free range’ on packaging to those producers that have hens living in the required conditions and who also display the stocking density of their hens prominently on the packaging.
- Rules for Display: For those eggs sold without packaging, the ‘free range’ eggs must be displayed distinctly, such that a person could reasonably distinguish between them and non-free range eggs.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has released an accompanying guide, Enforcement Guidance: Free range chicken egg claims, in which it has clarified that ‘prominent’ display on packaging means a person can easily find and read it. Egg producers have also been given a potential new defence to claims of misleading and deceptive conduct in this area, with the Government proposing a ‘safe harbour’ defence if they can provide evidence proving compliance with the Standard. In light of these changes, and to avoid liability under the ACL, producers of non-free range eggs should ensure the words and images they use on packaging and in displays do not incorrectly imply their product is ‘free range’.
Despite the progress on this issue, many animal welfare advocacy groups as well as consumer advocacy groups, have described the Standard as weak, given that the limit of 10,000 hens still suggests over cramping. But for the growing number of consumers who want to buy free range, these new rules provide greater clarity around what goes into their shopping basket and will ensure producers make honest claims about their eggs.
This blog was co-authored by Josephine Gardiner, Jessie Buchan and Melinda Upton.