“In Victoria, Daylesford farmer Paul Righetti, who started production under his label Real Eggs in April, had orders for his free-range yolkers before the first egg was laid.” – Alex Speed, The Australian

It’s enough to fry your brain. You want to buy free-range eggs. It should be simple. Free-range eggs are eggs laid by hens free to roam outdoors at will, aren’t they?

Well, not necessarily. With no enforceable national industry labelling standard to help consumers make informed decisions, many producers are still making a scrambled egg of “free-range” definitions. Choice magazine reports that while the National Model Code of Practice defines free-range as 1500 birds a hectare, major supermarkets can sell free-range eggs from producers with stocking densities of up to 10,000 birds a hectare. And paying more for your eggs does not necessarily reflect higher welfare standards, either, Choice found.

Free-range egg advocate Lee McCosker has long called for a national, legally enforced definition of free-range eggs. The founder of animal welfare group PROOF (Pasture Raised on Open Fields), McCosker says the “free-range accreditation found on eggs in most supermarkets is not worth the carton it is printed on”.

While our politicians search for a solution — a meeting by consumer affairs ministers in Melbourne recently resulted in an agreement to work towards an enforceable national information standard for free-range eggs — shoppers are left to do their own research, take pot luck (not recommended) or find a trusted brand and stick to it.

So we’ve done some hunting for you, with the aim of identifying a few hero brands and giving you some idea of what to look for next time you’re looking at rows of cartons at the shops.

Mulloon Creek is one genuine free-range egg producer that has cracked the market. The certified organic producer at Bungedore on the NSW-ACT border categorises its eggs as “pasture raised” and runs a total of 16,000 laying hens, on average 350 hens a hectare. Shelter is a couple of large mobile sheds, which are always open and are moved twice a week. The hens are protected by Maremma stock guardian dogs. Mulloon Creek supplies more than 50,000 eggs to the ACT and NSW markets, including Harris Farm. “We have always called our eggs pasture raised,” says manager Tobias Koenig, “because the term free-range has been completely bastardised”.

On Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Tom and Fiona Fryar have been producing real free-range eggs for 20 years. Fryars Kangaroo Island Free Range Eggs run 50,000 hens on 1600ha of pasture, employs 22 locals and produces 12,000 dozen eggs a week that go to more than 300 outlets across the country, including 120 in Adelaide. The Fryars supplement their hens’ diet with 2500 tonnes of grain — including wheat, barley, and peas — grown each year on their property.

Tom Fryar praises the work of South Australia’s Gail Gago, who as Consumers Minister is leading the way to produce a “free-range” marketing label for locally produced eggs under 1500-a-hectare stocking density.

However, Fryar is looking to the recent national meeting for “real leadership to help protect true free range egg businesses” and wants eggs produced by more than 1500 hens a hectare to be classified as “barnyard”.

“You only have to go into any big shopping centre and see people bewildered by the array of supposed free-range choice,” says Fryar, “because big producers with more than 20,000 birds per hectare are saying their chooks are free-range like ours. Absolute rubbish. The lack of an enforceable, legal definition means it’s the consumer who is getting screwed.”

Mark Killen decided on the description “open range” for his Papanui eggs when he stopped farming and starting raising laying chooks in 2001. “Before we started,” Killen says, “I went to a so-called free-range place to look at their system and they had these chooks locked up in sheds; they weren’t allowed outside and they had no feathers on them. I immediately knew we had to distance ourselves from [that labelling].

“We did a lot of research and open range seemed to describe best the lives our chooks have.”

Killen keeps 4000 chickens on his 900ha property near Merriwa in the Upper Hunter Valley, NSW. The birds live in old school buses that are converted into mobile chook houses, moved by tractor every few days to fresh pasture. Killen supplies about 50 retail outlets and restaurants across the Hunter Valley and Sydney, including Bondi Wholefoods and Vini in Surry Hills. “We have a waiting list because there is huge demand for eggs that are the real thing,” he says.

“Our eggs aren’t cheap to buy but I think people are happy to pay for our eggs because they know the egg they are eating was laid by a hen that has a happy, free life. Also, once they taste the flavour of our eggs, I reckon we’ve got them for life.”

In Victoria, Daylesford farmer Paul Righetti, who started production under his label Real Eggs in April, had orders for his free-range yolkers before the first egg was laid. His 1000 pasture-fed chooks on 1200ha now supply high-end restaurants and retail outlets in Dayles­ford and Melbourne including the Lake House, the Village Store, Yarraville and Rosa’s Kitchen and Rosa’s Canteen, in Melbourne.

Like the Fryars, Righetti grows the grain for his hens. “There definitely is a food movement towards consumers demanding real free-range eggs,” he says. “The whole egg packaging thing is so deceiving but people are hungry for the real thing.”

Righetti, who is passionate about educating consumers about the differences between real free-range and what consumer and welfare groups call “phony free-range”, was recently part of an open day by Daylesford Macedon Produce to show people a “true free-range property”.

“Demand is definitely out there in the market for the real thing, but producers need to educate consumers as to why free-range eggs are a premium product.”

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