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It seems egg farmers are as baffled as consumers are when it comes to defining a ‘free range egg'

WHAT comes first, chicken or the egg?

According to producers and consumers, the chicken always comes first, but the values that put the chicken first differ.

One of Australia's favourite food sources is burdened with much confusion when we think about what kind of life its layer leads.

It seems egg farmers are as baffled as consumers are when it comes to defining what a ‘free range egg’ is - and the confusion comes from business pressures. Surprised? Well, there are multiple ways to define, control and monetise ‘free’ - let’s see where the story starts.

Once upon a time there was an egg farmer called Josie, and like many other commercial farmers in the industry she produced eggs by keeping hens in cages in large sheds that were controlled environments. Because of the scale, size and way Josie manages her hens and business she’s able to supply her customer, ColesWorth supermarkets, with a ‘value’ product that they sell for under $4 a dozen.

The industry was also made up of people like Joe, who runs a much smaller-scale operation. His free range eggs are produced by hens who roam all around his property. He collects and sells them for $8 a dozen at farmers markets and specialist shops.

One day ColesWorth noticed Joe's ‘free range’ eggs selling for $8 and realised consumers liked the idea of hens that roam free and would pay a premium for the philosophy behind the product. They wanted a part of the premium pie and by enlarging the market base, consequently created a huge demand for this type of production called ‘free range’.

Of course Joe and his mates could never feed the nation with farms of their scale, so ColesWorth turned to Josie and other commercial producers who could guarantee the numbers, and asked them to make changes to suit the 'new' product.

So how do they - how do WE - define free range?

Well, in 2002 the CSIRO developed the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry, fourth edition. State governments endorsed it at the time (but never legislated) and it’s been a guide to follow since then. Along with abiding by food safety, OH&S and biosecurity laws, the leading industry players and most others have followed this guide on how many hens can be run per square metre through to how many watering points per hen need to be available.

So Josie, our caged egg farmer, spends millions to switch to the ‘free range’ standard requested by the retailer to meet consumer demand. She follows the guide, which says subject to weather and disease outside, hens should be given access through numerous hatches to outside paddocks. Of course it details many other requirements, including:


*... hens have access to an outdoor area (range) during daylight hours for a minimum of eight hours per day, shaded areas and shelter from rain and windbreaks

* there is a maximum of 1500 hens per hectare, however, higher numbers are acceptable if hens are regularly rotated onto fresh range areas and continuing fodder cover is provided

* acceptable and unacceptable animal management practices

* as hens are housed in sheds when not out on the range, the Model Code sets out guidelines for the maximum number of hens that can be housed and this applies to both free-range and barn laid systems of production ...


Now, as demand grows for ‘free range’ off the back of emotional perceptions, organisations like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) start throwing their weight around and penalising some farmers to satisfy some consumer complaints.

But against what standard? These farmers were following the agreed voluntary Code. Admittedly industry hasn’t been able to unite to form mandatory standards for production due to various players and their tastes in markets. So the ACCC penalise against perception, but whose perception?

A recent case saw the ACCC smacking free range egg farmers in the face because not all hens were outside. That’s right. Hens have the choice to wander outdoors, but unsurprisingly some of the girls like it inside. The farmer couldn’t guarantee that every chicken had chosen to exit the building for some time throughout the day, so they were slammed by the ACCC, despite a glaring lack of regulation to judge these farmers against.

So, now let’s assume Josie becomes a chook whisperer and somehow gets all the chickens to leave the shed in the morning and then locks them outside for the day. Sounds simple enough.

But now they can’t go back in to lay eggs. But that’s okay, we say, they’re free range, they can lay wherever outside! Nope. Josie would then be breaching food safety rules if eggs are laid on dirt or faeces, not to mention contravening OH&S laws that forbid a farm worker to pick up a single egg off the ground.

So if she could lock them outside, which she can’t, she then breaches other rules and regulations if they lay eggs outside. But the ACCC reckons all chickens must go outside, whether they choose to or not. This is all without considering ColesWorth's definition of free range too.

Someone better get fire truck over to Josie’s, because I reckon she’s about to blow her top!

In short, this has come about as ColesWorth has cashed in on a fatty market segment selling ‘free range’ eggs. Their enormous demand for consistent quality and quantity will see commercial egg farmers do what they can to supply a mass-produced, commoditised version of ‘free range’.

It should come as no surprise that we’ve seen confusion reign when trying to label a product as free range but farm it in a controlled environment that requires sometimes conflicting quality, quantity, profits, OH&S, food safety and biosecurity considerations all to be met.

That doesn’t sound free to me - for the hens or the farmers.

As global food demand increases, there are increasing trends back to caged systems that meet these complex requirements with much more consistency, especially food safety.

That said, efficient production - and even good animal welfare - can come at the cost of a bad ‘perception’.

For more on this topic, read Senator David Leyonhjelm's blog 'Free doesn't mean happy'.

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Sam Trethewey

Sam Trethewey

grew up farming down south and now commentates on agriculture across Australia
Date: Newest first | Oldest first

READER COMMENTS

Meg
15/10/2014 12:23:20 PM

Just a couple of points, Sam: 1. The Model Code has been incorporated under the animal welfare legislation and into the regulations of all States and Territories. 2. The ACCC is not concerned with animal welfare but the requirements of the Competition and Consumer Act which in practice means labeling of credence claims. The are not just prosecuting the egg industry re credence claims.
Get MuddyTo think clearly in farming and about farming, you need to get muddy - commit, roll up your sleeves and get involved. SAM TRETHEWEY gets stuck into some of the issues facing those on the land.

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