A NATIONAL standardised definition of free range eggs must be legislated, says Senator John “Wacka” Williams, to help prevent costly legal prosecutions against “spooked” egg producers.
The NSW Nationals Senator hammered the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) over his concerns about the ambiguity of free range egg labelling definitions during Senate budget estimates hearings last week in Canberra.
He repeatedly referred to current action taken in the Federal Court by the ACCC against one of Western Australia’s biggest egg producers, Swan Valley Eggs.
In December 2013, the ACCC initiated proceedings against the company’s proprietor Barry Cocking, alleging his company Snowdale Holdings failed to comply with free range egg production standards.
Mr Cocking has urged the federal government to implement a national code of practice to provide uniformed production standards for egg producers, which Senator Williams has supported along with other Senators from the major parties.
The ACCC also took successful action against a NSW egg producer, Pirovic Enterprises, resulting in a $300,000 fine last November, which prompted ACCC boss Rod Sims to warn industry about the standard for on-farm practices.
But Senator Williams said questioning at budget estimates last week highlighted increased confusion about the definition of what constituted “free range”.
He said he was “bloody well annoyed” about Mr Cocking’s case and the lack of definitive standards.
“We produce 400 million dozen eggs a year in this country,” he said.
“The average Australian consumes 220 eggs a year. We have to double that to 800 million by the year 2055, according to the Intergenerational report.
“(But) we have now got producers like Barry Cocking having to spend $900,000 in legal fees to defend their case against you (the ACCC), so this is a serious matter - and I am bloody well annoyed about it.
“While ever I am in this place I will pursue a set of standards so the standards will be laid out in black and white to keep these good people who produce food for our nation out of the courtroom and facing severe court costs, like you have brought on producers now.”
Senator Williams said Coles and Woolworths had both accepted 10,000 hens per hectare as their free range standard, but Mr Cocking uses 1500 hens per hectare and was "being pinged in the courts”.
“We will let the court make its decision there,” he said.
“You are saying we do not need standards, yet we even have groups like Choice saying this.
“The egg industry is devastated. Investment has dropped right off. They are spooked right out of the game.
“That is why I believe we are going to have to set standards in conjunction with the states so that these people have to abide by the standards, whether or not they are eggs from caged hens.
“Of the four billion hens in the world, 90 per cent are caged - which has the highest survival rate, by the way.
“When you (farm) free range, the death rate is a lot higher.”
However, Mr Sims said the legal cases that the ACCC had been mainly engaged in were ones where the evidence said hens sometimes never, and sometimes very rarely, were outside the barn.
“The judgement that has now been brought down in the Pirovic case suggests that the birds both can go outside and on most days do go outside, such that, if you drive past the farms, you might see a fair number of birds outside, consistent with how the labels often look, where there are birds outside in fresh green grass,” he said.
“We have had cases where that is the label; in fact, the birds are very, very rarely - if at all - outside.
“We are trying to think, 'What would a consumer think if they buy a free range egg?'
“We think it is appropriate that the birds should be able to leave the barn and on most days most of them would be outside for some period of the time.
“We are not trying to get terribly arithmetic about it.”
Mr Sim said the ACCC’s role was to see whether the labelling represented what a reasonable consumer would think.
“If the labelling misleads consumers, we take action,” he said.
But Senator Williams said in the Pirovic case the court judgment stated it "should not be seen as a resolution of what constitutes 'free range' eggs in the abstract".
Mr Sims said the cases that the ACCC had taken to court where often where the birds were in an environment where they had very limited opportunity to go outside, “and yet they are called free range”.
“If they are essentially birds that really cannot do anything else but stay inside the barn, it is very hard to see how that is free range,” he said.
“We have to put ourselves in the position of what a reasonable consumer would believe.”
Queensland Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan asked, “What about the reasonable chicken?”
“If you believe you have chickens that do not want to go outside and do not go outside then do not call them free range,” Mr Sims said.
Senator Williams said if the boundaries and production standards were established in a national code, the ACCC could then “ping” egg producers who stepped outside those rules.
Mr Sims said if the parliament wants to set the standard, “that is parliament's prerogative and not our call”.