South Australian government proposes its own free range egg industry code

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 19th June 2013

South Australia is considering whether to establish an industry code for free range eggs. A new proposal from the South Australian Government defines ‘free range eggs’ as coming from hens stocked at 1,500 birds per hectare.

Public consultation on the issue opened 17 June 2013.

“When South Australian shoppers buy their eggs, they should know exactly what they are getting and the environment from which it has come,” said John Rau, SA Minister for Business Services and Consumers.

“I have been talking with South Australian egg producers about this issue – some have been frustrated a different standards and definitions of ‘free range’ across the states,” Mr Rau said. “I also know that South Australian shoppers have been confused about the way eggs are labelled, particularly the definition of ‘free range’. That confusion should be cleared up,” he said.

The South Australian Government will introduce a code for South Australian egg producers so that shoppers will be able to clearly identify eggs that meet the new SA ‘free range’ standard.

It is proposed that the code be drafted to include strict conditions such as:

  • A maximum density of 1,500 layer hens per hectare on the outdoor range
  • Hens to have unrestricted access to outdoor areas during daylight hours
  • Outdoor areas to provide adequate shelter
  • A prohibition on induced moulting

“We are renowned for the quality of the food we produce and the State Government is keen to retain and enhance that reputation,” Mr Rau said. “I strongly encourage the industry and consumers to participate in the consultation process,” he said.

Code welcomed by ‘free range’ accreditation group and SA Greens

The move by the South Australian government to introduce its own code has been welcomed by ‘free range’ accreditation group Humane Choice.

“I believe this industry code will actually bring clarity to the free range confusion and those producers that are meeting consumer expectation will stand out from the crowd,” said Lee McCosker of Humane Choice. “Consumers will then be able to decide if they are willing to pay a little more for what they want, or accept eggs grown under a more intensive operation. The choice will be made a lot clearer,” said Ms McCosker.

The South Australian Greens have also welcomed the move towards a ‘free range’ egg code.

“If adopted, this SA Laid Code for free range eggs will be a positive step forward for consumers, producers and the welfare of the birds too,” said Tammy Franks MLC, Greens’ Animal Welfare spokesperson.

The SA Greens said that ‘free range’ eggs were commanding an “ever increasing market share and primary price for producers” and that Australian consumers are “increasingly demanding and expecting higher animal welfare standards”.

“Whilst not going as far as our Tasmanian colleagues who have moved to ban battery hens altogether, the requirements for egg producers to adhere to a set of mandatory conditions to gain accreditation will lead to win-win-win outcomes in SA and is supported by the Greens,” Ms Franks said.

The South Australian Government is accepting submissions on its proposal until the middle of July 2013.

Queensland is the only other State to have moved to a ‘free range’ standard of 1,500 hens per hectare.

‘Free range’ definition debate history

The definition of ‘free range’ eggs has been a contentious issue in Australia for some time. Australian Food News reported in March 2013 that supermarket group Coles’ proposed ‘free range’ standards for eggs would allow up to 10,000 birds per hectare, nearly seven times the number allowed under the voluntary guidelines. In November 2012, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission rejected the first version of a certification standard proposal by the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL), saying that the AECL’s then-proposed 20,000 birds per hectare standard would be “misleading”.

Constitutional law concerns

The introduction of a law by a State Government going it alone for a product that arguably could be sourced from interstate could pose an Australian Constitutional legislative risk, according to Australian food law expert Joe Lederman of FoodLegal.

“It will be interesting to see whether the new code is mandatory and whether it might impact as a constraint on freedom of interstate trade,” Mr Lederman said.

Mr Lederman pointed out that there were numerous Constitutional law hurdles that might need to be addressed if the new code was opposed. He said that the Australian Constitution prevents discrimination against similar products from interstate. On the one hand, South Australia has had some degree of past success in creating some laws such as its own beverage container deposit scheme, but, according to Mr Lederman, the proposed introduction of a “free range” standard as a mandatory one only in South Australia might be viewed as “quite a different scenario”.