MILLIONS of eggs marked "free range" are laid by hens that rarely roam outdoors, animal welfare groups claim.
Humane Choice chief operating officer Lee McCosker accused big businesses of trying to hijack the term "free range" to jack up profits.
The welfare organisation and consumer body Choice are calling for a consistent national rule for genuine free range egg labels amid fears shoppers are being hoodwinked into paying a premium.
Producers can stock up to 100,000 chickens per hectare and still promote their products as free range, Choice spokeswoman Ingrid Just warned.
"People are clearly paying a premium for these eggs, yet their expectations of contented clucking chooks roaming around open green pastures aren't always a reality," she said.
The comments follow an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission initial assessment rejecting an Australian Egg Corporation Limited push for a new free range egg certified trademark because it may mislead consumers.
A final decision will be made in coming months.
The watchdog said the proposal to cap outdoor stocking densities at 20,000 hens per hectare - compared with 1500 per hectare in several other voluntary schemes - clashed with community expectations and could mean only a small proportion of birds actually ventured on to the range at any one time.
The proposed rules also did not prohibit chicks having their beaks trimmed with a hot blade, laser or infrared technology.
Free range is the fastest-growing egg category. About 43 million dozen free-range eggs are sold in supermarkets annually, one-third of the market.
AECL figures show that 29 per cent of all free range eggs produced, including those sold to restaurants and other food services, were produced at farms with stocking densities of at least 20,000 hens per hectare in 2010.
AECL managing director James Kellaway denied claims its proposal would leave hens largely cooped up indoors.
"We will continue to work with the ACCC to ensure the trademark certification is achieved for the benefit of consumers, industry and hen welfare," he said.
Ms McCosker said a stocking density of 20,000 hens per hectare was about the equivalent of two birds in a shower recess.
There is no nationwide single definition of free range eggs.
Rather, a national model code for animal welfare adopted by some states, and a number of voluntary schemes, exist.
Read more at The Australian