Gippsland egg producers and retailers are contributing to a national discussion about what makes an egg ‘free range’.
Federal Small Business Minister Kelly O’Dwyer has extended submissions for a consultation paper to create a national standard for egg labelling.
Gippsland Free Range Eggs owner Marnie Ellis, who runs a 1000-hen farm at Glengarry, said egg labelling was confusing with options such as ‘free range’, ‘pastured’, ‘cage free’, ‘barn laid’ and ‘access to an outdoor range’.
Ms Ellis said she had often asked customers what ‘free range’ meant to them, with an overwhelming majority saying “green grass and rolling hills” because of marketing images on egg cartons.
“The truth is there are very few producers that allow their birds access all daylight hours and even fewer that have hens running on grassy areas,” she said.
The egg producer said ‘true free range’ would include stocking density on egg packaging, informing the community about how big a hectare is and what density was appropriate for bird health, such as dust bathing and scratching for insects and bugs.
Using electric netted areas and mobile caravans to ensure chickens have fresh pasture, her farm boasts a 1200-bird per hectare density. However, the total farming area dedicated to the hens is 85 birds per hectare.
“People need to know that the hens have had access to an outdoor, pastured range and they haven’t lived in crowded conditions,” Ms Ellis said.
BullFrog Gully Eggs producer Ian Onley echoed calls for bird density parameters for free-range certification, as well as a time period to indicate whether chicken sheds were fixed or mobile.
As a bio-dynamic operator, his Gormandale egg farm already has a BioDynamic Research Institute certification.
His farm, which also uses a rotating pasture system with mobile chicken caravans, is inspected once a year and must stock according to grass availability.
“If birds are on the same ground too long, parasites and disease build up in the ground and affect the health of the birds,” Mr Onley said.
While much of the free range debate surrounds chicken welfare and space, Mr Onley said egg nutrition and quality were other important considerations.
He said operators running a pasture-based system should call their eggs ‘pastured, free range eggs’ or simply ‘pastured eggs’ as grass was the most important aspect of a hen’s diet.
“A bird eating layer pellets will lay the same quality egg in a cage as she will on free range if the ground is bare, which quickly becomes, under anything, but the lightest stocking densities,” he said.
The consultation paper exploring options to enhance consumer confidence and certainty around egg labelling was released on 5 October.
Ms O’Dwyer extended the period for written submissions to 27 November after “significant” public response.
“We want consumers to have a clear understanding of the product types, while considering potential regulatory burdens for producers and retailers,” she said.
The consultation paper is available for comment at www.treasury.gov.au and www.consumerlaw.gov.au