Many people buy free range eggs because they believe the hens producing them have a better quality of life. A new investigation by consumer advocate CHOICE reminds us that the term "free range" is ill-defined and frequently misused, so it's no basis for making shopping choices.
Chickens picture from Shutterstock
CHOICE calculates that 213 million eggs sold in Australia last year were labelled as "free range", but didn't meet general consumer expectations for what that would imply. The National Code of Practice suggests no more than 1500 birds a hectare, but many brands have much higher densities — up to 10,000 birds in some cases. And you often can't find this information anyway: of the 55 "free range" products CHOICE examined, only 17 showed those details on the carton, and 20 didn't make the information available anywhere.
So in many cases you're not getting what you paid for, but you're still paying through the nose. Free range eggs are typically almost twice as expensive as caged eggs.
We've pointed out before that the term "free range" is applied inconsistently, with different rules for different states. In 2013, Queensland changed its rules so that six times as many hens could be crammed into the same space while still describing the eggs produced as "free range".
While inconsistent, those rules are enforced. Consumer regulator the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) regularly busts suppliers for making misleading claims about free range status, and that's happened for ducks as well as chickens.
Bottom line? If you do care, you'll need to do more investigating than just relying on a simple "free range" label. If the brand you buy doesn't disclose stocking density information, chances are it's a lot higher than you'll be comfortable with.