Australians are flocking to buy free-range eggs, but uncertainty due to voluntary guidelines continues to cloud the industry, according to the latest IBISWorld report.
Free-range eggs account for more than 20% of the four billion eggs produced annually in Australia, with that number expected to increase in coming years.
The production of free-range eggs has grown at an annualised rate of 15.1% over the past five years, in comparison to 1.9% for cage eggs. Organic eggs, which also tend to be free-range, have grown by 48% in the past five years.
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IBISWorld senior industry analyst Brooke Tonkin told SmartCompany there has definitely been a shift towards free-range eggs and farmers are altering their production methods to meet this demand.
“We’re also seeing it at the retail level as well with a push by the major supermarkets to stop sourcing caged eggs,” she says.
“Consumers are paying more attention to what they’re eating and where it’s actually coming from.”
Tonkin says as well as the lengthy process to gain free range or organic accreditation, a significant barrier for the industry is the confusion around what ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ actually mean.
“A lot of consumers don’t actually understand there is a difference between the two,” she says.
“That’s a big problem for the industry because there is no national standard of what free range actually is. There’s a lot of ambiguity for farmers there and it is another challenge for them in expanding that free-range production.”
Currently, there is a voluntary code of practice for the egg farming industry on what constitutes ‘free range’. The guidelines suggest there should be 1500 chickens per hectare when outdoors – which works out to be around six square metres of land per chicken.
“That’s the only standardised definition which is voluntary… it’s creating a problem for the industry,” Tonkin says.
“A lot of producers have a lot higher concentration of chickens on their land – but because they’re outdoors and have a quite bit of room they are sold as free range.”
Government ministers from each state and territory met earlier this year and reached an agreement that there needs to be a national standard for free-range eggs. However, they are not due to meet again until 2015 to finalise the details.
“It’s going to be quite a while before the industry gets any sort of clarification,” Tonkin says.
Madelaine Scott has been keeping free-range chickens since she was eight years old. Having 12 years’ experience under her belt, she says she has definitely noticed a trend towards more people choosing free range and organic over caged eggs.
“All my customers are organic free range customers,” she says. “They [consumers] are thinking about it even when they’re going to the supermarket.”
Scott supplies a number of wholesale and organic stores around Melbourne, and says her ultimate goal is to see “lots of small guys” in the market and “less big people”.
“I try to educate more people and help lots of other farmers start up as well. The big farms aren’t as ethical and sustainable.”