Free ranging approach to obeying code
Tim Barlass and Deborah GoughApril 15, 2012
Illustration: Matt Golding
TENS of thousands of free-range eggs being sold in Melbourne supermarkets come from chickens ''roaming'' in a space smaller than a doormat, the industry has admitted.
And one in three eggs comes from a farm that breaches the industry's own new definition of what is considered free range.
The admission by the Australian Egg Corporation is contained in a fact sheet outlining its case for increasing the definition of free-range from 1500 birds per hectare to 20,000 this month. The corporation, which represents about 400 producers nationally, says without the new standard, production of free-range eggs would decline - and prices would rise.
It revealed an anonymous survey of egg producers, which asked free-range egg farmers how many hens they held and the size of their farm, had found 29 per cent already held more than 20,000 birds per hectare.
The corporation also believes that there is no scientific research to support the previous limit of 1500 hens per hectare, which was introduced to the Poultry Code in 2001.
''If the supply of eggs dries up with a 1500 cap, it is more likely we will have imported eggs from overseas markets as they do in the UK,'' James Kellaway, the corporation's managing director, said.
''So where are we going to import from? Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines,'' he said.
''These countries have less
animal welfare standards and food safety laws or protection of quarantine issues … I don't believe Australian consumers want to see their shell eggs being imported.''
He also warned that lower density farms would mean fewer free-range eggs - forcing up the cost to between $10.60 and $12.80 a dozen - ''out of the reach of most people'' according to research by the Centre for International Economics.
In a separate survey, the Egg Corporation asked consumers what they considered to be an acceptable limit for free-range hens. Responses ranged from 500 to 25,000 hens a hectare.
Eggs produced under the new standard are expected to hit supermarket shelves within weeks, despite many free-range egg farmers arguing that the changes will mislead and confuse consumers, most of whom would deem 20,000 birds per hectare unacceptably high.
The Victorian-based Free Range Farmers Association, which limits stocking density to 750 hens a hectare, said consumers would be ''seriously misled'' if stocking levels were raised significantly.
President Phil Westwood said: ''Any intensive production system which does not meet the current standards should be labelled as 'cage free' or 'barn laid' rather than misuse the term 'free range'.''
Benedict Brook, spokesman for Woolworths, said the significant increase in the stock density was concerning and the supermarket chain was reviewing the revised code.
Coles said for its own-brandfree-range eggs the maximum stocking density was 10,000 birds per hectare. ''We came to this figure after consulting with industry and welfare groups, and we believe it strikes the appropriate balance between animal welfare and keeping free range egg prices within reach of most Australians,'' said spokesman Jim Cooper.
He added that Coles had been advised by the industry that any broader moves to lower stocking density would result in fewer free-range eggs being produced.
''This in turn would raise the prices of free-range eggs, making them unaffordable for many Australian families,'' he said of the advice.
Zelko Lendich, managing director of Farm Pride, one of the country's largest egg suppliers, said eggs produced on farms with more than 20,000 birds per hectare could not legitimately be called free range.
In the EU, the stocking density is set at 2500 per hectare and Queensland has legislated a limit of 1500. In South Australia, which is considering the same limits as Queensland, Agriculture Minister Gail Gago last week labelled 20,000 hens a hectare ''out of touch with public expectations''.
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