CARTONS of free-range eggs are stacked five shelves high, promising liberty in bold font. They are branded as ''eco'' and environmental, biodynamic, organic and ''genuine freely ranging''. If the pictures of sprawling green farms on the boxes are any guide, some hens have more space to spread their wings than most Sydneysiders.
All these eggs are born free but some are more free than others. Prices range from about $4 to $15 a dozen. Choosing between them is no mean feat for a supermarket shopper. Vita Sutton, for one, isn't sold on the clutch of free-range eggs at Woolworths in Marrickville. ''They'll charge you three times as much to say it's free-range but how do you know?''
On the shelves are ''free-range eggs'' from farms housing anywhere between 750 and 100,000 hens per hectare - like the difference between a McMansion and an inner-city squat.
''Consumers are going in blind,'' says the Choice spokeswoman Ingrid Just. Shoppers, she says, understand free range to mean chooks ''who are able to roam freely, flap their wings and cluck happily on green pastures''.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in November declared a proposed free-range regime of up to 20,000 hens a hectare - or two chooks a square metre - did not meet such expectations.
That proposal, by the Australian Egg Corporation, was more than 13 times greater than the current cap of 1500 hens a hectare. The executive director, James Kellaway, says this code of practice may have been appropriate when free-range eggs represented less than 1 per cent of total production in 1992 - but now it's 34 per cent. Supermarkets now sell 516 million free-range eggs a year; the equivalent of 258 million hot breakfasts.
''Yesterday's farming system cannot be maintained if we wish to feed a growing population and keep free-range eggs available and affordable,'' he says.
Mr Kellaway divides the egg-eating population into realists and idealists, claiming an affinity with ''the silent free-range egg-consuming majority''.
Choice surveys, though, suggest that less than 1 per cent of consumers consider 20,000 hens a hectare free range - but then the majority of respondents had little idea of where to set the appropriate cap.
Free-range hens under the national model code of practice must have access to an outdoor area, or range, for at least eight hours a day, along with windbreaks and shade and shelter from the rain. The NSW Food Authority says free-range density can exceed 1500 hens a hectare when they are regularly rotated on to fresh range areas.
A spokesman for Coles, which recorded 50 per cent growth in free-range egg sales in the past year, says 10,000 hens a hectare ''achieves the right balance between animal welfare and affordability''.
Organic egg producer Ian Littleton instead sets the mark below 1000 hens a hectare - giving each of his ISA browns about 10 square metres in which to scratch, preen, perch, bathe, roam and stretch their wings on his farm in Pitt Town, 60 kilometres north-west of Sydney.
Mr Littleton, president of the Free Range Egg Producers Association of NSW, is firmly in the ''idealist'' coop. The proposed cap of 20,000 hens a hectare is ''out of line'', he says. ''It's like calling beef cattle stuck in feedlots as free-ranging.''
His four-year-old layers gather in mobile nesting houses or wander alone and free. ''I do believe they can look happy,'' Mr Littleton says. Of course, he has never seen a chicken smile - they don't have lips.
The ACCC will hold a month's public consultation before delivering its final verdict on the Australian Egg Corporation's proposal. ''Consumers want clear and accurate labelling of eggs,'' commissioner Sarah Court has said.
Back in Marrickville, Maria Breda hopes they clear her confusion. She spends minutes comparing supermarket free-range eggs before walking away empty-handed. ''Isn't shopping confusing,'' she says.