Controversy over ‘free range’ redefinition

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 6th July 2010

Plans by the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd to review the standards of free range egg production have caused a schism in the industry, with free-range producers refusing to agree to changes that could see the maximum number of ‘free range’ birds per hectare increase from 1500 to as many as 20 000, and allow de-beaking.

Small farmers, free range producers and animal welfare groups are outraged over the proposed changes, saying that they are a concession to the AECL’s main members – larger cage and barn producers.

Free Range Farmers Association secretary Dianne Moore told the Weekly Times Now that many major industry players got away with labelling their eggs ‘free range’ simply by putting doors in the sides of their 30 000-bird sheds, but kept all food and water inside.

The Australian Egg Corporation says that it is running workshops for comment on possible definitions and minimum standards.

“AECL is attempting to give consumers a ‘line in the sand’ that acts as a minimum benchmark that egg farmers must meet in commercial production,” they stated in a press release.

It is not yet clear whether meeting this ‘minimum benchmark’ would allow producers to label their eggs as free range, or what the benchmarks will be.

FRFA spokesman Phil Westwood said that the AECL could avoid the watering down of the ‘free range’ label by introducing more specific labels, such as ‘semi-intensive’ (as used by the EU) or ‘cage-free’.

“The AECL set up a working group some time ago to develop words which will allow major farms to continue to produce eggs which can be labelled as ‘free range’. This proposal is the outcome that demonstrates an attempt to mislead consumers,” he said.

The Australian Greens have denounced the proposed changes, with MP John Kaye drafting a bill intended to legally define the term ‘free range’.

“Free-range isn’t just a marketing tool. It is an ethical approach to food production that is receiving increasing support from consumers,” said Kaye. “For the label ‘free-range’ to have any meaning at all the eggs must be produced in an ethical manner. “There is currently no legal definition of what constitutes a free range egg.

“The Greens are introducing legislation that would define free range at between six to ten chickens per square metre. The Greens would only allow for eggs to be labelled ‘cage’ or ‘free-range’, blocking moves by egg producers to fudge the truth by using euphemisms such as ‘barn laid’ for what are factory produced eggs.”