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A spotlight has been shone on major supermarkets – including Aldi, Woolworths and Coles – over what some consumers say is misleading advertising of their respective lines of free-range eggs.
Own-brand product lines from these supermarkets source eggs from suppliers that allocate each hen just one-square-metre to live in and can farm 10,000 hens on just one hectare.
Supermarket giants Woolworths, Aldi and Coles have responded to enquiries from Yahoo News Australia, saying they complied with government standards for free-range eggs.
While the high density is legal in Australia, a Model Code of Practice developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) states hens should have no less than 6.6 square metres each and farmed at no more than 1,500 hens per hectare.
The CSIRO developed its set of standards, published in a 2002 report, after investigating the basic psychological and behavioural needs of poultry.
Despite this, the government-legislated rules allow producers to farm 10,000 hens on one hectare of land and still call them free-range.
The contentious matter was brought to the attention of Woolworths on Sunday by a shopper who questioned the free-range label stuck to a carton of the supermarket's Select Free-Range Eggs.
"Your 'free range' eggs say you have max 10,000 birds per hectare... but the free range Model Code of Practice recommends a maximum outdoor density of 1,500 birds per hectare. Isn't this misleading to consumers?" she wrote in a post to Woolworths' Facebook page.
Aldi, Coles also under scrutiny over free-range eggs
Shoppers have also accused Aldi of contributing to the inhumane treatment of farmed hens, with many expressing disappointment in response to an advertisement on Facebook.
"I refuse to buy them. Just because it's legal doesn't make it right," one person wrote.
"I won’t buy unless they’re 1,500 or less a hectare. Would be fabulous if you did this Aldi," someone else said.
"I know you are complying with the Australian standard, but you may want to consider offering eggs that comply with a more humane standard," a third wrote.
Coles shoppers have expressed similar concerns for years, arguing the free-range label on its egg cartons were merely a "marketing scheme".
"False advertising Coles... They are not true free-range eggs," one shopper wrote in a comment to a Coles post about its free-range eggs.
"Anyone who believes this crap is delusional, real free-range would cost about 20 bucks a dozen. This is just a scam selling caged eggs dressed up as free-range," another said.
Advertising eggs from hens allocated just one square metre as free-range was described by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) spokesperson Emily Rice as "highly disingenuous".
"It’s highly disingenuous for egg labelling to imply that hens enjoy freedom, sunshine, and space, when the reality for many birds is so different," Ms Rice told Yahoo New Australia.
"Sadly, the ambiguity of labels like 'free-range' and the lack of industry transparency and regulation mean that many hens on so-called 'accredited farms' still don’t have enough space to stretch out a wing or indulge in behaviour that is important to them."
Ms Rice argued consumers should be aware that claims like "free-range" were "designed to make purchasers feel good, not the animals held captive behind them".
Supermarkets respond to free-range egg density concerns
A Woolworths spokesperson said "every supplier of Woolworths brand Free Range eggs meets the industry and legal standards for free-range farming".
"While our cartons show the maximum roaming density, a number of suppliers provide even more space for their chickens than the minimum free-range standard," the spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.
"We work closely with our suppliers to ensure their practices comply with all industry standards and labelling requirements."
Aldi told Yahoo News Australia all its eggs complied with "best practice industry production standards".
"All of our Lodge Farm Free Range Eggs follow the Australian Government standard on free range eggs, which is subject to a stocking density of 10,000 hens or less per hectare," a spokesperson said.
"We also offer customers Just Organic Free Range Eggs which achieve a maximum stocking density of 2,500 hens per hectare. Our egg suppliers range from small family-run businesses to large egg producers, and we work closely with them on everything from a sustainable transition from cage-free eggs to innovations in best-practice farming."
Coles also said there was nothing wrong with labelling their range of eggs as free-range.
“Coles Own Brand free range eggs comply with the government standard, which reflects the guidance provided by the RSPCA," a spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.
Consumers wanting to check which eggs advertised as free-range comply with the CSIRO standard can use a free phone app called CluckAR which will scan egg cartons, and reveal their free-range rating and compare chicken stock densities.
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