Well cock-a-doodle-doo if this was not one of the hardest questions I have attempted to answer on this blog. Eggs are the most legally (and nutritionally) complex food out there, so keep that in mind next time you hurl them from your moving car and hit a poor innocent writer who is just out for a quiet walk, minding his own business. You bastards.
You will no doubt be familiar with the way eggs are labelled. Scrambled, fried, poached, raw, stuck on a yummy breakfast muffin… no wait, I mean caged, free range, organic, barn laid, ‘happy eggs’ and so on. What do these labels actually mean, though? From your point of view, these labels are a key giveaway as to the price of the eggs. You don’t even need to look at the price tag to know, instinctively, that ‘free range’ eggs will be more expensive than cage eggs because free range eggs are (we are led to believe) more humanely gathered and the hens that lay them better treated, leading to higher production costs and hence a higher cost on the supermarket shelf.
What does ‘free range’ mean, though, legally speaking?
Trying to get unbiased information on this topic was almost impossible, making answering this question objectively and accurately a very difficult task. It’s like egg producers have a vested interest in keeping the differences between cage and free range eggs very uncertain and unclear, but then I am suspicious and cynical by nature. I am sure the confusion on this topic is simply because I don’t know how to research it properly.
Once upon a time, egg producers could label their eggs any way they wanted. This led to concerns amongst consumers and animal welfare groups that perhaps not all eggs labelled as ‘free range’ were, in fact, from free range hens.
Once egg producers realised they could charge more money if they labelled their eggs ‘free range’ regardless of the conditions in which their eggs were produced, there was a lot of court action taken against egg producers for false and misleading labelling claims. In 2015, the mislabelling of eggs got so out of control that the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission had to get involved. They spent months writing up a taxpayer-funded report that set out the government’s guidelines on what makes an egg a ‘free range’ egg and hence able to be legally labelled or advertised as such.
I find this so amazing. I mean, the ACCC is one of the most important and high profile regulatory bodies in our country. For it to research the topic of egg farming and labelling, prepare a detailed paper, release it to the public, and then enforce its recommendations is not a small (or inexpensive) undertaking. They even put a photo of some hens on the cover of their report. Aww, hens. Look, there is a cute brown one!
The ACCC said that if an egg producer wanted to label its eggs as ‘free range’ (or suggest through words or pictures that the eggs are free range), the producer must farm the eggs and care for the hens in conditions that a ‘reasonable person’ would consider sufficient to qualify for the label of ‘free range.’ That’s a normal person on the street, like you or me, rather than a reasonable farmer or supermarket owner.
The ACCC’s report went on to say that hens and the eggs they pop out are ‘free range’ if those hens can (and do) move about freely on an open field on most days. This definition is backed up by several recent court decisions, where the ACCC took egg producers to court and argued that those producers had misled consumers by labelling their eggs as ‘free range’ when in fact the hens laying these eggs never left their cages. The courts found in favour of the ACCC and said that a hen that is unable to freely stride from its cage to experience the majesty of the open fields outside the barn doors is not a free-range hen. The hen has to be able to make it out to those fields and proudly flap its wings and do a shit of freedom on actual grass before its eggs can be legally advertised and sold as ‘free range.’
Investigations into, and reporting on, egg labelling did not stop with the ACCC’s report, oh no no. The issue of truth in egg labelling has become a major political issue in recent years, and a government advisory body has now been set up by the Commonwealth Treasury Department to further advise the government on egg labelling laws.
A sixty-three-page report (!) was tabled in Federal Parliament in 2017, which recommended new laws to better ensure truth in egg labelling. The final recommendation in this report was for a new law that would only allow egg producers to call their eggs ‘free range’ if the hens that laid those eggs had meaningful and regular access to an outdoor field. This recommendation also proposed that the egg packaging must set out the number of hens on the farm that produced those eggs, and the area available to the hens on it. To qualify as ‘free range’ the farm must have no more than 10,000 hens per hectare of available outdoor field space.
See, I told you egg labelling laws were complicated. Understand the above, and you have all it takes to be a great lawyer. I don’t understand it at all.