Shoppers paying almost double the normal price for free-range eggs may be wasting their money if they think they are choosing the most ethical and nutritious option.
Many eggs sold as "free-range" are laid by hens that never get outside to peck at fresh grass and insects, and may even have clipped beaks, say industry insiders and animal welfare experts.
Despite calls by eggs producers, the government has failed to set legal standards for how much outside space a free-range hen must have, the size of flocks and the provision of grassy paddocks, instead relying on a largely voluntary welfare code.
Even the Egg Producers Federation (EPF), the body which acts in the interests of egg farmers, has warned the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries that the lack of rules around free-range could lead "less scrupulous producers to reduce the amount of range available", and implied that this could lead to "a loss of consumer trust".
SPCA chief executive Robyn McDonald said many free-range hens are in barns all their lives, eating only grain.
"Consumers are being cheated if they think every (free-range) egg is equal - they certainly aren't going to get the beneficial flavours and colour of yolk from the big flocks."
McDonald said many big producers keep thousands of birds in one barn, with just a tiny exit at one end, and aggressive birds tend to "guard" the door.
At a farm seen by the Sunday Star-Times, the outside area appeared to be bare dirt, with no trees or other shelter to allay the birds' instinctive fear of hawks.
McDonald said those hens lay eggs that taste exactly like barn-laid eggs, because they are eating the same food. But they sell for almost double the price of battery-cage eggs (see graphic).
MAF spokesman Helen Keyes confirmed the ministry does not check free-range farms, but said animal welfare and food safety in chicken farms are audited by the NZ Food Safety Authority.
But that is unlikely to help, experts say, because farms usually do meet the few rules that are in place for "free-range". The point is that those conditions are not what consumers expect.
Under current law, free-range farmers are also allowed to top up their flocks with hens that have spent their life in battery cages, and free-range chicks are bought from battery producers.
Animal welfare campaigner Dr Michael Morris said feather-pecking, cannibalism and disease outbreaks are the biggest welfare problems on free-range farms. He said faced with crowded conditions, some farmers clip the birds' beaks to stop them hurting one another.
Even the 30 per cent of free-range farmers who hold RNZSPCA accreditation - which means their farms are audited and meet SPCA standards - are allowed to clip their hens' beaks.
Graeme Carrie, co-director of a large organic free-range egg company, Frenzs, said standards are so slack that he and business partner Rob Darby wrote their own "10 commandments" when they went into business in 1989.
Although their farms now also meet the much tighter standards that cover organic eggs, they are still waiting for official free-range standards to be set.
Carrie said consumers "see nice little pictures of birds on farms and birds sitting on nests looking very happy. Some of those birds are certainly not enjoying the conditions that are inferred". Consumers buying those eggs miss out on the nutritional benefits of "real" free-range eggs, he said. Frenzs farmers are not allowed to clip beaks, as it prevents birds from pecking grass.
"The biggest benefit to a free- range egg is that it comes from a hen that can eat grass," said Carrie. "That's where the good stuff comes from."
Rob Darby said: "We've been battling with the Egg Producers Federation for ages on this."
Michael Brooks, executive director of the EPF, said the body "lobbied very hard" when the new welfare code was written, to get a minimum of 11m2 of outside space made mandatory for each free-range bird.
But the current code says there are too many variables to consider and it is not possible to set a minimum space requirement.
Brooks said any consumer concerns should be put to the Commerce Commission. He said the EPF will not support any commercial egg farmer found in breach of any legislation.
Auckland Animal Action spokesman Jasmine Gray said some free- range farmers are trying to exploit the market. "They'll cut corners wherever they can, and make themselves appear to be as green and animal-friendly as possible."
McDonald said consumers should buy organic free-range eggs from small, specialised shops - and if they are buying from supermarkets, look for the RNZSPCA stamp of approval.
However, experts who spoke to the Star-Times emphasised that even in the absence of clear definitions of "free-range", buying such eggs is still ethically preferable to buying eggs produced by battery hens.
WHAT DOES FREE-RANGE MEAN?
In 2004 the Egg Producers Federation submitted that if the code did not specify a minimum outdoor range, "less scrupulous producers" might reduce the amount of range available, with a possible "loss of consumer trust and reduction of sales". The code recommends an outside stocking density of 11m2 per bird, but there is no compulsion on farmers to meet that standard.
- Sunday Star Times