Consumers could be duped into paying extra to buy "factory farmed" poultry products if a proposed new definition of free-range is approved for the booming chicken meat industry, animal welfare groups warn.
The country's biggest chicken meat producers, including Inghams and Baida who supply supermarkets and fast-food outlets such as KFC, have applied to the consumer watchdog to have a new free-range label certified for chicken meat.
The distinctive label would be used on the packaging of free-range chicken and turkey products from the major farms.
But animal welfare groups Voiceless and the Humane Society warn that the big chicken producers are trying to "hijack" the free-range label and allow it to be used for products from farms that keep as many as 140,000 birds a hectare.
Ruth Hatten, legal counsel for Voiceless, said consumers rightly assumed that free-range farms provided natural conditions for chickens but the proposed standard would not meet consumers' expectations.
“Labelling such crammed conditions as free range is a highly deceptive use of the term that would shock consumers who expect better,” Ms Hatten said.
But Andres Dubs, the executive director of the Australian Poultry Industries Association, which devised the new standard, said it was in line with the definition already used by Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia (FREPA).
FREPA accredits about 100 free-range chicken-meat farms across the country, as well as several turkey farms.
"This proposed standard will be more explicit and more informative than the FREPA one but it is not more lenient and we are not suggesting that the stocking density of chickens be increased," Mr Dubs said.
Mr Dubs said the standard would deliver improved welfare conditions for chickens.
"This is will be more robust and transparent for consumers," Mr Dubs said.
Ingrid Just, a spokeswoman for the consumer group, Choice, said there needed to be one standard definition of free-range for chicken meat otherwise consumers were left confused about which one to trust.
"When you have a whole lot of definitions it is very hard for consumers to make an informed decision," Ms Just said.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is taking submissions on the standard and is also considering a definition of free-range for the egg industry, which consumer and animal welfare groups also oppose.
Under the proposed standard for the egg industry, a producer could label their eggs free range if they kept as many as 20,000 birds per hectare. The current model code allows 1500.
The ACCC has accused several chicken suppliers of misleading labelling over its use of the term "free to roam" on its chicken products and KFC changed its advertising on its website, which also used the term free to roam.