The Australian Government has announced new standards for free range egg labelling, but images from inside a Government-approved "free range" egg farm may leave consumers questioning the value of the reforms.
The new guidelines, released on Wednesday after almost five years of delays and indecision, stipulate a stocking density of no more than 10,000 hens per hectare.
However, this only applies to the hens' outdoor grazing areas -- which the hens must have "regular and meaningful" access to. There is no requirement specifying the amount of time spent outside, or the density of indoor areas.
Free range eggs now make up the majority of eggs sold in Australia. A 2016 survey showed that animal welfare concerns were the primary driver of free range sales, with 90 per cent of free range consumers listing not wanting to support the cage egg industry as the reason behind their choice.
Head of Campaigns for the Humane Society International, Nicola Beynon, has accused the Government of misleading consumers over the new guidelines, which fall far short of Australia's own voluntary Model Code of Practice (developed by the CSIRO in 2002), as well as standards set in the UK and Europe.
The announcement has been welcomed by egg farmers, who say they now have clarity to make decisions about the future of their businesses.
Chair of the NSW Farmers' Egg Committee, Bede Burke, said the decision is important for securing the egg industry into the future.
"For years, farmers have been kept in limbo, unsure whether to invest or hold off depending on the Government's response to settling a free range standard," he said in a statement on Thursday.
"We're pleased that farmers and consumers know where they stand."
But animal welfare organisations say that the new guidelines fall well short of international standards.
It's extremely disappointing that the new standard on free range eggs locks in a cap that is more than six times the previous voluntary limit of 1500 hens per hectare."
The RSPCA recommends 1,500 hens per hectare for fixed free range systems, which is in line with the CSIRO Model Code of Practice -- a voluntary guideline for free range egg producers in Australia. In Europe and the United Kingdom, 2,500 hens per hectare is the maximum density considered to be free range.
"Consumers are worse off on these guidelines because they will still not be able to trust a free range egg label," the Humane Society's Beynon told HuffPost Australia.
"The Government has put the interests of big business before small free range businesses, animal welfare and consumers."
Beynon welcomed the requirement that the stocking density now be included on the labelling, but said that genuine free range producers would continue to lose out.
"The Humane Society International is encouraging consumers who want genuine free range to look for that 1,500 hectare stocking density -- look beyond that free range label, because unfortunately thanks to our government we can't trust it."
Consumer advocacy group CHOICE has also slammed the new guidelines, saying consumers will be paying a premium for eggs that don't meet their understanding of free range.
"It's extremely disappointing that the new standard on free range eggs locks in a cap that is more than six times the previous voluntary limit of 1500 hens per hectare," Tom Godfrey, the head of media at CHOICE, said.
Victorian egg producer Julie Kos -- whose farm has a stocking density of just 750 hens per hectare -- told CHOICE that the decision had already impacted on her business.
"I think 10,000 hens per hectare is dreadful for free range suppliers. The birds are put in a situation where it's not healthy. It creates disease and the birds are a lot more stressed than they would be," she said.
The new laws will be phased in over the next year, with all free range producers having to meet the new guidelines by Easter 2018.
If you're now wondering just how "free range" your eggs actually are, CHOICE has a full list of all the free range egg producers by stocking density, divided into those which meet the CSIRO's Model Code of Practice and those which don't.
In terms of eggs available at major supermarkets, an online search by HuffPost Australia found only one which meets the Code of Practice -- Sunny Queen Free Range Eggs. Here's a list of the top three, including stocking densities.
The Most 'Free Range' Egg Suppliers At Major Supermarkets
- Sunny Queen (& Sunny Queen Organic) Free Range Eggs: Available at Coles and Woolworths; stocking density of 1,500 hens per hectare, in line with CSIRO's Model Code of Practice;
- Pace Farm's Eco Organic Free Range Eggs: Available at Woolworths; stocking density of 2,500 hens per hectare; meets UK and EU guidelines;
- Happy Chicken Free Range Eggs: Available at Coles; stocking density of 3,500 hens per hectare; RSPCA approved
ALSO ON HUFFPOST AUSTRALIA