Ministers agree on national plan: Draft national standard for free range eggs will include a strict definition and minimum labelling rules.

Ministers agree on national plan: Draft national standard for free range eggs will include a strict definition and minimum labelling rules. Photo: Edwina Pickles

You are choosing between two cartons of free-range eggs, their packages decorated with pictures of happy hens and rolling hills. One is double the price. But whether the farm has 400 birds per hectare, or 20,000, it can legally label its eggs free range. And the price is no clue.

On Friday, Australia's consumer affairs ministers agreed to set a national, legally enforcable definition of free-range eggs, which could end the years of uncertainty for ethical shoppers.

The NSW Fair Trading Minister Matthew Mason-Cox received the green light to deliver a draft standard - which could include a definition of free-range and minimum labelling rules - at the next ministers' forum in early 2015.

Ministers agree on national plan: Draft national standard for free range eggs will include a strict definition and minimum labelling rules.

Ministers agree on national plan: Draft national standard for free range eggs will include a strict definition and minimum labelling rules.

It has taken at least one rejected state bill, one super-complaint to the competition watchdog, and consumer fury over an industry push for a free-range trademark that allows 20,000 birds per hectare, for legislators to agree on the need for a binding national code.

NSW Fair Trading commissioner Rod Stowe said reaching this consensus was a “major achievement”.

“The research shows 40 per cent of people buy free-range eggs and, when you go the supermarket, you should know what you’re buying,” Mr Stowe said. “There is too much confusion about the terms free range, barn laid, aviary and cage eggs and what they actually mean."

Mr Mason-Cox made the proposal at the minister's forum in Cairns after consumer group Choice filed a super-complaint last August, claiming shoppers were being misled and confused.

Choice wants to see the CSIRO’s model code of practice, which recommends stocking levels of 1500 birds per hectare, adopted as the national standard.

“At the moment, consumers have no confidence they’re not being ripped off and that’s a ridiculous situation,” said Choice’s campaign manager Matt Levey. “People want to make ethical decisions but can’t."

"A large number of consumers are shelling out for free-range duds, paying double the price of cage eggs, without having any confidence these products meet their reasonable expectations.

But John Coward, chief executive of Queensland United Egg Producers, said regulators should not be hung up about stock numbers as that could “lead to a dangerous situation”.

“Given our soil conditions and climatic conditions in Queensland, we think the number of 10,000 per hectare, or one bird per square metre, is adequate for our climatic conditions,” he said. “It should be about welfare outcomes, stock rotation, grass cover and access to shade.”

The powerful Australian Egg Corporation sparked widespread outrage in 2011 when it proposed lifting free-range stock limits from 1500 to 20,000 birds per hectare. Spokesman Kai Ianssen said they were no longer pushing a number.

Its latest annual report showed the average price of a dozen free-range eggs was $5.23, far more expensive than caged eggs at $3.24. In the past five years, the market share of free-range eggs had lept from 27 per cent to nearly 40 per cent, while the share of caged eggs had fallen from 68 per cent to 51 per cent.

Greens MP John Kayes, whose free-range eggs bill was rejected by the NSW Lower House last year, said the debate had reached a “crisis point”.

"The nation's fair trading ministers must not listen to the industrial producers and their lobby groups," he said. "If the standard is to work it has to be driven by genuine free-range farmers, animal welfare experts and consumer representatives."

Bruce Billson, Federal Minister of Small Business, conceded the process was taking a long time. "Consumers want reliable and dependable information to make good purchasing decisions and not be misled or deceived," he said.