RSPCA Australia Senior Policy Officer Dr Jed Goodfellow has slammed moves by the federal government to unscramble consumer misunderstanding of free range eggs by defining a new labelling standard.
Small Business Minister Kelly O’Dwyer announced today that State and Territory consumer affairs ministers had met and agreed that 10,000 hens per hectare would be the maximum stocking rate set for a new Information Standard.
But Dr Goodfellow said the government agreement requiring hens to have ‘meaningful and regular access’ to the outdoors, at up to 10,000 hens per hectare, failed to provide the animal welfare assurances consumers were seeking on free range egg production.
He said RSPCA Australia believed free range hens should be stocked at a maximum rate of 1500 hens per hectare or up to 2500 if a regular rotation system was in place.
Dr Goodfellow said the announced decision put the interests of big business ahead of consumers, with hen welfare coming a distant third.
“The definition of ‘meaningful and regular access’ to the range is absolutely critical to the integrity of the Information Standard,” he said.
“The flock size, stocking densities inside and outside, layout of the barn, and the number of openings, are all crucial to determining whether hens have ‘meaningful and regular access’.
“The conditions of the range, including whether shelter is provided, also play a critical role.”
Dr Goodfellow said the consumer affairs ministers must ensure ‘meaningful’ access actually meant something to the hen “or else all of this has been a monumental waste of time”.
He said in genuine free-range farms, all hens were able to access an outdoor range where they felt safe and protected and could express essential behaviours like dust bathing and foraging, while inside, they could perch and lay their eggs in a nest.
“It’s important to note that none of these conditions are afforded to the 11 million hens currently confined to battery cages around the country,” he said.
“These hens suffer intensely and continuously throughout their lives.
“Consumers choose free range to avoid cages and they deserve a standard they can have full confidence in.”
The RSPCA’s position aligned with that of the Humane Society International which said the government had decided to join with supermarkets and big agribusiness to “legislate for deception”.
HSU said submissions to Treasury - during the consultation process that started last October to develop the new Information Standard - were overwhelmingly in favour of supporting 1500 birds per hectare while only 14 submissions supported 10,000 per hectare.
But Small Business Minister Kelly O’Dwyer said the new Information Standard for free range egg labelling would give consumers confidence to know they’re getting what they’ve paid for and 10,000 hens per hectare, was the minimum standard.
“Those people who want to label their product with less chooks per hectare can make that very clear to the consumer and the consumer will be able to choose,” she said.
“The argument has been about creating a minimum standard here and I think that’s important to note.
“We say there is going to be a cap of no more than 10,000 chooks per hectare; that is the maximum cap.
“And of course those people who have different methods of farming free range eggs may choose to only have 1500 chooks per hectare, they will again be able to, for the first time, put that on the label of their product.”
Ms O’Dwyer said consumers would be able to compare the stocking density rate of one particular product, like 1500 chooks per hectare, versus another product at 10,000 per hectare.
She said if consumers in supermarkets choose to pay for the product with a 1500 chook stocking density, “they’ll be able to make that choice due to the information standard we’ve put in place”.
Ms O’Dwyer said “meaningful and regular access” meant the chook could leave the barn and scratch around in the pasture outside and be able to “range” without being impeded.
“That ‘range’ is exactly what we mean by free range eggs,” she said.
“At the moment there is a lot of confusion, that forcing chooks out into the range on most days, in all sorts of weather conditions, wasn’t necessarily in the best interests of the chooks,” she said.
“So you need to have a sensible, common sense definition of free range which is what we’ve delivered on today.”