Many might think New Zealand's Serious Fraud Office has more important things to investigate than eggs laid by caged hens being sold as "free range".

The same would be said of the Commerce Commission which referred a case to the SFO.

But it is a sign of the times that a product with exactly the same composition and the same nutritional value whether the hen lived in an individual cage or a crowded shed, should be the subject of this level of inquiry. It matters to consumers.

Sentiment it may be, but the quantity of "free range eggs" on display at any supermarket testifies that a significant proportion of customers care very much about the quality of poultry life.


They like to think of the hens roaming and foraging on a farm somewhere, pecking at grain on the ground and nesting in the hay barn.

A commercial poultry farm was never like that. Even before the arrival of battery farming, hens were kept in close confinement, and it was probably just as well.

Predators such as cats and stoats also roam the free range and even without them, hens can be cruel enough on each other.

The "pecking order" is real in a hen house. Many a wounded resident has to be saved by human intervention.

Nevertheless, the relative freedom of a flock within chicken wire seems infinitely preferable to a solitary cell as far as humanity can tell, and that preference has to be respected by those who label their product "free range".

They are happy enough to be paid a premium for the label, they cannot complain if cases of careless or false labelling are treated as serious fraud.

The Egg Producers' Federation should be the keenest to prosecute any supplier suspected of supplementing a consignment with caged eggs.

The free range claim needs to be fiercely policed by the industry if it is not to lose the confidence of consumers.

Consumer New Zealand calls for more scrutiny either by retailers or the Ministry for Primary Industries which inspects farms.

Big retailers certainly should be more vigilant but the ministry has more important things to do. Its first concern is the safety of New Zealand's farm products.

The accuracy of marketing claims that do not pose a health and safety threat to consumers ought to be policed by competition and complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

The fact that it has taken a website, The Newsroom, to uncover apparent deceptive practice by one supposedly free range supplier is no credit to the rest of the industry.

The supplier evidently does not have enough hens to produce the quantity they provide annually, so buys additional stock from a wholesaler of both free range and caged eggs.

The industry may need to police the supply chain of each category more carefully in future.

Yesterday, two other free-range egg brands told the Herald they had bought stock from the supplier under investigation and had paid "free range prices" for them.

One has since withdrawn them from sale, the other has put them out as ordinary eggs. All free range brands have more work to do now to restore the confidence of customers who care.