GOVERNMENTS have hatched a new plan to unscramble consumer confusion and legal ambiguity around definitions for “free range” eggs and other production standards.
Small Business Minister Bruce Billson said a national meeting of Consumer Affairs Ministers in Melbourne on Friday had agreed further policy intervention was needed to enhance consumer confidence and certainty for egg labelling.
The meeting agreed to request a Consumer Affairs Australia New Zealand (CAANZ) working group prepare a draft National Consumer Information Standard (NCIS) on egg labelling.
“There was absolute clarity of purpose that this was an area that needed attention; it had been going around in circles for a number of years and remained a matter of consumer regulator and egg production concerns,” Mr Billson said.
The minister said the CAANZ working group would develop the proposed standard by the year’s end, following “full and comprehensive consultation and collaboration of agricultural ministers”.
“Then we’ll have a further decision meeting in February,” he said.
Mr Billson said the new standard would provide: “useful, meaningful and certain guidance about under what circumstances certain claims can be made about eggs and the characteristics of their production”.
“The primary focus is around 'free range' but the group recognised that that, alone, wasn’t enough,” he said.
“We’ve got a range of different codes, certification regimes and in some cases legislative guidance across the States and Territories involving representations that can be made to consumers about eggs and how they’re characterised.
“Recent court decisions have found that the term 'free range' has been used far more loosely than the court believed was reasonable to properly inform and guide consumer choice.
“By getting clarity in this area, it will not only improve things from the consumers’ point of view, but it will also provide solid footing and clear guidance for egg producers about what they need to take into account and what characteristics are important in order to make claims about the nature of the eggs that they’re producing.
“Our aim is to provide clarity and certainty that gives confidence to consumers and a very solid footing for egg producers to know what they can do to make fair and reasonable claims to the marketplace.
“We’re keen to make sure that egg producers don’t run foul of the law and the best way to do that is bring about clarity and certainty on (when) such phrases as ‘free range’ can be used.”
Mr Billson said the NCIS are regulatory instruments that provide clarity about product characteristics to help influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. They’ve been used previously in relation to washing instructions for clothing or furnishings to provide information about proper care, he said.
An options paper was also presented at the meeting for the consumer affairs ministers to consider.
Mr Billson said the other choices included: taking no further action and letting court proceedings take their course; an industry-wide voluntary national certification trademark scheme (mindful that several schemes already offer trademarks, certifications and other guidance); and whether a broader and more effective industry code of conduct was the way forward.
The fifth option was whether the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry) - being developed by agriculture ministers - adequately considered consumer issues, he said.
Mr Billson said consumer affairs ministers across the States, Territories and Commonwealth thought the NCIS was the most suitable mechanism for providing clarity and to build confidence for consumers and also for egg producers.
Phil Westwood of Freeranger Eggs in Grantville, Victoria, said the move to develop the NCIS for egg production standards was something the industry had long anticipated.
Mr Westwood said for years the industry had been urging politicians to establish a clear national definition for free range production, and “at last they have taken notice”.
“It's great to see that after all this time we are close to a national standard for free range egg producers,” he said.
“All the publicity generated by deception and greed has damaged the 'free range' brand and earned consumer distrust.
“Hopefully after February we can start to rebuild consumer confidence.”
But Mr Westwood questioned why the move had only occurred after the Federal Court’s decision which resulted in a $300,000 fine for NSW egg producer Pirovic Enterprises last November, on misleading 'free range' egg claims.
In December 2013, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) initiated similar proceedings against the Snowdale Holdings in Western Australia.
“The reality is that the ACCC could have picked any of the eggs labelled as 'free range' from supermarket shelves and won similar court decisions,” Mr Westwood said.
“Pirovic and Snowdale Holdings in WA have been operating to standards approved by the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd.”
Mr Westwood said he believed corporate businesses operating in the egg industry would have already started lobbying, to try and ensure the standard eventually endorsed by the ministers would allow their intensive production systems to be called 'free range'.
“Hopefully that won't be the result because it would not reflect consumer expectations or the Federal Court position on 'free range',” he said.
Mr Billson said the existing court cases against free range egg claims would proceed under the current law. He said case law would help to provide “a clear starting point for the types of considerations that need to be taken into account in formulating the National Consumer Information Standard”.
He said the standard would provide a “clear framework in which consumer affairs agencies at a state, territory and federal level will give effect to the law relating to false and misleading representation”.
ACCC chair Rod Sims told Senate estimates in Canberra recently the consumer watchdog had been engaged in legal cases where the evidence said hens sometimes never and sometimes very rarely are outside the barn, in egg production systems.
“We are trying to think, 'What would a consumer think if they buy a free range egg?',” he said.
“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.”
NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello said a consensus has been reached by the states and territories along with the Commonwealth to prepare a national standard on egg labelling.
“This is a significant win for consumers and producers and I thank my counterparts for demonstrating leadership on what has been a difficult issue,” he said.
“The average Australian consumes 220 eggs a year, so when it comes to buying this staple product we want consumers to have confidence they are getting what they pay for.
“This new standard will also provide greater clarity for egg producers.”
John Coward of Egg Farmers of Australia said he supported a national approach to egg labelling to help ensure consumer confidence in the eggs they buy as well as certainty for farmers.