Farmers have welcomed a new national standard for free-range egg production, saying it is a win for commonsense, consumers, farmers and chickens.
Minister for Small Business Kelly O’Dwyer and her state and territory colleagues signed-off on a new standard on Thursday.
The national definition of free-range will require hens have “meaningful and regular” access to the outdoors, and that the density of chickens outdoors must be no more than one hen per square metre (10,000 hens per hectare).
“Farmers of free-range eggs will also be required to prominently disclose their outdoor stocking density of their hens, allowing consumers to easily choose their preference,” Ms O’Dwyer said in a statement.
Farmers had lobbied for the 10,000 birds per hectare standard and said it was supported by science.
The change is significantly less strict than the 1,500 birds per hectare standard preferred by the RSPCA and consumer group Choice Australia — a standard that is already encouraged by the Australian Capital Territory.
After the announcement, the ACT Minister for Consumer Affairs Shane Rattenbury said the new code would “water down” the Territory’s existing regulations.
NSW, SA and Victorian egg industries ‘pleased’
NSW Farmers chief executive Matt Brand said he was pleased with the result, saying it was a win for farmers and consumers.
“There has been a lot of different views put forward by interest groups and this has been an emotive debate. But evidence-based decision-making has ultimately prevailed over ideology,” Mr Brand said.
“It’s a win for consumers, a win for farmers and it’s a win for our chooks.”
Matt Brand NSW Farmers’ Association
“Each consumer affairs minister who supported today’s outcome took the time to visit a farm. They engaged with the issue and they’ve got this decision right.”
John Coward from Egg Farmers Australia said the national standard would provide clarity and confidence to producers and consumers alike.
“It will provide producers … the confidence to go out and invest knowing that now the conditions for labelling free-range eggs has got some backing behind it,” he said.
“For the producer, the egg farmer, I think it’s fantastic.”
Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) egg group president Brian Ahmed echoed the support saying he believed that the “meaningful and regular access to the outdoors” definition is clear.
“We’re going to make sure that birds have access to outdoor areas for a minimum of six hours a day, but there was some confusion about whether the birds would be forced to go out or not,” Mr Ahmed said.
“It’s very hard for a farmer to guarantee that all his birds will go out, as we give them the option, but we don’t force them.”
Managing director of Day Eggs, Dion Andary, said the new standards, “acknowledged the modernisation of the free-range egg industry and brought free-range egg production into the 21st century”.
“This definition has been out there for a long time and consumers that understand it well know that the recommendation of 10,000 means that every bird … has the area the size of an AFL football oval to walk around in,” he said.
However Mr Andary said he believed range density was not as relevant as other animal welfare factors such as temperature, and raised concerns that consumers could be priced out of the free-range market with stricter legislation.
“It’s very, very important that everyone has access to an affordable free-range egg … we’re about affordability for consumers,” he said.
Small producers call for stricter legislation
While large-scale egg producers welcomed the decision, some small-scale operators have deemed it a missed opportunity.
On Kangaroo Island, South Australia, free-range spokesperson Kathy Barrett wanted tighter regulations, including hens getting access to daylight for eight hours a day, shelter and windbreaks.
“We’re very disappointed that the bigger producers have had the biggest influence with the government,” Ms Barrett said.
“If you have your feed, your water, a temperature controlled shed, no shade and shelter outside, why go outside?”
Despite not agreeing with the outcome, she believed it would bring some clarity to the industry.
“We’ve all wanted a national standard, we haven’t got the outcome we want, we’re just hoping the consumer will maybe ring their producer, visit Facebook and websites and give themselves an informed choice before they make their purchases,” Ms Barrett said.
CHOICE calls for consumer boycott of ‘bad eggs’
Consumer advocate CHOICE has reacted quickly to the new standards by calling for a consumer boycott of eggs from companies with high stocking densities.
CHOICE claimed consumers were being ripped off by buying up to $43 million worth of eggs they thought were free-range, but which failed to meet consumers’ expectations of stocking density.
“These new rules fail the commonsense test,” CHOICE spokesman Tom Godfrey said.
“Unfortunately consumer affairs ministers today voted to lock-in misleading free-range egg labels, and that is why we are calling for consumers to boycott these products.”
PETA Australia condemns new standards
PETA Australia’s Campaign Coordinator Claire Fryer said the new code for “free-range” eggs was designed to help eggs producers — not chickens.
“Hens on many free-range farms will still be crammed into filthy, stinking sheds with thousands of other chickens,” she said.
“Male chicks will still be suffocated to death or ground up alive because they are of no use to the industry.
“Hens often still have parts of their sensitive beaks sliced off with a hot blade.
“The only label that consumers can trust as cruelty-free is the one that reads ‘vegan’.”
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