31/03/2016 3:49 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

'Free Range' Eggs Now Have A New Definition

Lester Lefkowitz via Getty Images
Chicken farm

Ethical consumers often spend some time poring over the fine print on their carton of eggs, choosing between free range and barn-raised and cage eggs.

Many choose free range, in the belief that the chickens who lay those eggs have ample room to move, flap, and forage, rather than being cooped up in cramped enclosures.

That choice just became a little more confusing, with regulations passed on Thursday to allow the "free range" label to be applied to chicken farms of 10,000 birds per hectare -- one bird per square metre -- where birds have "meaningful access" to the outdoors.

There is little definition of what constitutes "meaningful," and a broader definition of free range means producers can sell their eggs for higher prices. The changes also force producers to disclose the stocking density of chickens on their egg cartons.

Previously, a looser definition of "free range" meant egg producers varied wildly in how their chickens were kept. A Model Code of Practice from the the CSIRO would set the upper limit at 1500 chickens per hectare, but the changes announced are almost seven times higher than that number. Farmers have applauded the decision, while consumer groups and the Greens party have slammed the changes as legislating for the poor treatment of chickens.

"If a hen doesn't go outside, that's barn-raised. To claim you can have a free range product with hens not going outside is ridiculous," said CHOICE spokesman Tom Godfrey in a statement to Fairfax Media.

Greens animal welfare spokesperson Senator Lee Rhiannon also slammed the move.

"This decision is a disgraceful move by the National Party to misuse of the Australian Consumer Law to progress the interests of big industrial egg producers," Rhiannon said.

"As a result of today’s decision, producers will be able to cram hens into a shed, label the eggs ‘free-range’ and charge consumers a premium. The assurance that hens on free-range farms will have 'meaningful and regular' (access) is a slight improvement on what the industrial egg producers were calling for but it doesn’t go far enough."

CHOICE said free range eggs are often sold for double the price of cage eggs. The group called the changes "misleading" and "dodgy" in a heated statement.

"CHOICE believes the nation's consumer affairs ministers made the decision to put the interests of large-scale egg producers ahead of the needs of consumers," the group said.

"The decision means that big producers can still flog dodgy 'free range' eggs at high prices in supermarkets, and consumers are still going to have to fight to figure out if they're buying the real deal or an expensive imitation. We believe that eggs which come from hens that don’t go outside and have high stocking densities don’t meet consumer expectations, and don’t deserve a 'free-range' label."

However, NSW Farmers CEO Matt Brand said in a statement that his group was happy with the changes.

"We're pleased with the result. It's a win for consumers, a win for farmers and it's a win for our chooks. There has been a lot of different views put forward by interest groups and this has been an emotive debate. But evidence-based decision making has ultimately prevailed over ideology," he said.

"Each Consumer Affairs Minister who supported today's outcome took the time to visit a farm. They engaged with the issue and they've got this decision right. Farmers have been happy to place some guidelines around free range production. We will cap external stocking density and we will label this on pack."

CHOICE has called for a boycott of egg producers who don't meet the CSIRO's model code, which the group claims includes some egg brands sold by Woolworths, Coles and Aldi.