WHAT eggsactly constitutes a free-range chook?
That's the question vexing egg producers who have had their proposal for a new trademark certifying free-range eggs knocked back by the consumer watchdog.
The Australian Egg Corporation (AEC) has applied to use the trademark, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says it has concerns about a proposed free-range regime that would allow egg producers to run 20,000 birds per hectare.
The egg industry code, while not enforceable, currently limits free-range producers to 1500 hens per hectare.
ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said today the commission had dealt with a total of 1700 submissions on the issue from industry representatives, consumers and animal welfare organisations.
She said the ACCC believed the AEC's trademark proposal was misleading.
"The ACCC considers that these practices and standards do not accord with consumer expectations about the free-range production of eggs," Ms Court said.
Consumer group Choice has welcomed the ACCC's position.
"Consumers told Choice that 20,000 birds per hectare is simply not what they expect from free-range eggs and today the ACCC has recognised that," Choice spokeswoman Ingrid Just said.
NSW Greens MP John Kaye said the ACCC "has confirmed what consumers and free-range farmers already knew".
"The big cage egg producers are using the egg corporation to ram through new standards which would enable them to cash in on the 'free-range' label without adhering to decent animal welfare standards," Mr Kaye said.
Today's ruling is just an "initial assessment" of the AEC's application.
There will be a month's public consultation before the ACCC delivers its final verdict.
The AEC said today it was still confident there was "overwhelming evidence" in favour of the proposed new standards.
"We will continue to work with the ACCC to ensure the trademark certification is achieved for the benefit of consumers, industry and hen welfare," AEC managing director James Kellaway said.
Mr Kellaway said the new standards, which were subject to a three-year development program, would provide a consistent framework to ensure high-quality farm standards.
The standards cover 170 audit points, including issues from hen health, food safety, farm quarantine and biosecurity, environmental stewardship, egg labelling and hen welfare for all farming systems.
Mr Kellaway said the ACCC had raised concerns about "only a few" of the audit points.