Boycott ‘caged eggs products’ national campaign hits traders and consumers at prominent Melbourne market

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 5th November 2014
South Melbourne Market's cage egg ban has been met with criticism
South Melbourne Market’s cage egg ban has been met with criticism

An announcement from South Melbourne Market that it will ban the sale of all caged eggs by introducing a “We Care about the Chicken and the Egg” campaign, has been met with widespread criticism from farmers and industry commentators.

The South Melbourne Market has announced that from 1 December 2014, traders are banned from selling products that have been sourced from hens housed in cages. This will include any eggs used in restaurants and cafes.

Additionally, traders are to be required to use a special label format with ‘bird densities’ as well as identifying the products as barn-laid, free-range or organic.

A spokesperson for the South Melbourne Market, which is owned and run by the municipality the Port Phillip City council, said customers would “therefore be informed to make their purchase decision based on price; category including barn-laid, free-range and organic; and hen stocking densities”. While the concept of ‘bird density’ may yet be unknown to some shoppers, the South Melbourne Market said it had identified stocking density as “one of the ways to convey to customers the potential quality of free-range systems”.

Australian Egg Industry concerns

Concerns from Australia’s egg producers are mounting.

The new moves are seen to be the “thin edge of the wedge” for a nationwide campaign against conventional egg production.  One egg producer accused the campaign of being “led by animal liberationists who are probably non- egg-eating vegans”.

Many producers see the move as a trend likely to put additional cost pressures on local egg producers, and that this will ultimately create unsustainable cost pressures that will shut down their businesses.

The extension of the ‘caged egg’ ban to egg products in foodservice may also give added incentive for the importing of egg products to replace Australian eggs for use in bakery products and other categories that currently use Australian-sourced eggs.

Overseas processed egg products are less likely to be required to meet free range requirements that are imposed on Australian egg-producers. The overseas suppliers are also possibly advantaged because of the Australian government  adherence to international free trade obligations to prevent restrictive requirements being imposed on overseas producers.

Campaign criticised by farmers and commentators

The campaign has met with criticism from egg industry leaders and media commentators alike. Victorian Farmers’ Federation eggs group President Brian Ahmed told The Weekly Times newspaper that the South Melbourne Market was “taking away people’s choice” and would drive up the cost of eggs for consumers.

The Weekly Times reported the move to ban cage eggs had received a mixed response from farmers and traders who sell at the market, with some anticipating the necessary price changes would affect sales, while others, many of whom were already using cage free eggs, said the ban would make little difference to them or their customers.

The Weekly Times Focus editor wrote in an opinion piece for that newspaper that the ban was “short-sighted and hypocritical”, citing numerous examples of non- enforcement of the Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) laws by the same municipality as the enforcement body responsible for preventing non-compliance with the CoOL labelling requirements at the very same South Melbourne Market.

RSPCA supportive of the moves

Hope Bertram, Marketing Manager of Humane Food at RSPCA Australia has liaised with the Market regarding their campaign.

“RSPCA Australia applauds South Melbourne Market on its latest commitment to animal welfare. Consumers at the markets’ cafes and restaurants can now be confident the meals they order contain cage-free eggs,” Ms Bertram said.

“Alongside this, grocery shoppers will be happy to see only cartons of cage-free eggs on shop shelves,” Ms Bertram said. “This decision by the markets’ management and Port Phillip Council shows great leadership and acknowledges the growing community demand to get Australian hens out of cages once and for all,” she said.

Market Manager, Ross Williamson, said it was important to the South Melbourne Market “to be committed to animal welfare principles”.

“Our discerning shoppers want to make informed purchasing decisions and be offered clear and consistent labelling,” Mr Williamson said. “We are proud to be leading the way in what, we believe, should be the ethical standard for all egg sellers nationwide,” he said.

The campaign follows other key labelling projects at the Market including the review of ‘country of origin’ labelling, and the auditing of organic and free-range claims on other produce.

Other Australian moves against cage-free eggs

The use, or discontinued use, of cage-free eggs has also gained attention through recent announcements by supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, and fast food giant McDonald’s.

Australian Food News reported in September 2014 that McDonald’s Australia had announced it would move to cage-free eggs by the end of 2017.  Also in September 2014 Australian Food News reported that Woolworths had announced that as of this month, ACT stores will sell 100 per cent cage-free eggs as part of the the supermarket’s ongoing commitment to remove cage eggs from all outlets by December 2018.

Woolworths announced its 2018 commitment to phase out cage eggs in conjunction with its partnership with Jamie Oliver in 2013. The supermarket group was the first Australian retailer to introduce free-range eggs to its own brand. Woolworths has said it will also remove caged eggs as ingredients from all of its Homebrand products by the end of 2018.

Australian Food News reported in March 2013 that Woolworths’ rival Coles had also announced that it would move towards cage-free eggs.

But while Coles’ removal of cage eggs from its range was welcomed by animal welfare groups at the time, its definition of ‘free range’ was met with hesitation. Coles’ proposed ‘free range’ standards would allow up to 10,000 birds per hectare, which is a nearly seven-fold increase in the number of birds per hectare allowed under the voluntary guidelines. In November 2012, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission rejected the Australian Egg Corporation Limited’s (AECL’s) proposal for ‘free range’, saying that the proposed 20,000 birds per hectare would be “misleading”.

One of Australia’s ‘free range’ egg and poultry accreditors, Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia Ltd (FREPA) has expressed dissatisfaction with the Coles supermarket moves. FREPA told Australian Food News that Coles had not consulted them in setting its ‘free range’ guidelines.

‘Free-range’ egg labelling standards

In the absence of national labelling standards for cage free eggs, there exists a suite of criteria and certification schemes which aim to promote products that support the humane treatment of animals. The maximum number of birds allowed in outdoor spaces can therefore differ greatly between the various cage-free egg guidelines.

The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry is a voluntary national guide to the poultry industry, and designates a maximum outdoor stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare for free-range layer hens. The Free Range Farmer’s Association (Victoria) stipulates 750 birds per hectare, while the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme states between 1,500 and 2,500 birds per hectare for fixed and rotational farming methods respectively.  The maximum limit adopted by some large supermarkets for their own brand of ‘free-range’ eggs is 10,000 birds per hectare.

Australian Food News reported in June 2014 that the NSW Government’s Department of Fair Trading had announced it would lead the development of a draft National Information Standard on free range eggs and with regard to the current review of the Model Code and any improvements in the effectiveness and enforceability of the Code, which it said will “work to enhance consumer confidence and certainty around egg labelling”.