Free range chooks are under threat. Far from a life roaming without restraint, a push to redefine the production of free range eggs nationally will make life even tougher.

Under the proposed changes from the Australian Egg Corporation, practices such as the ‘debeaking’ of hens will become more common to free range production and the number of birds per hectare may increase from 1500 to 20,000. Eggs they produce will be labelled as ‘free range’.

Animal welfare groups and free range producers have had long-held concerns over the factory farming of hens for egg production. Free Range Farmers’ Association spokesman, Phil Westwood, sees the proposed changes as a backward step for welfare and a potential windfall for large industry.

“This proposal, if it is adopted, will reap millions of dollars for the big operators by allowing them to charge a premium for their version of ‘free range’ eggs,” he told Crikey.

AECL’s changes will have industry-wide implications if adopted. According to the CSIRO’s Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, for eggs to be labeled ‘free range’ a maximum of 1500 birds can be kept on one hectare. Westwood says what is on paper and what occurs on the ground are radically different.

“Currently most ‘free range’ birds in Australia are debeaked — or beak trimmed as the industry prefers to call it — because generally they are run in flocks of many thousands in each shed.”

According to the Hen Welfare Advisory Group (an arm of AECL), about 15% of all eggs sold in Australia are free range. The practice of debeaking is a standard industry practice but the CSIRO Model Code outlines that “every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming” in free range egg production.

Westwood sees the AECL’s proposal as an attempt to bend the rules laid out by the Code. “The automatic beak trimming of birds is not condoned by the Model Code, so unless the Code is changed, the eggs cannot legally be defined as free range,” he said.

Free Range Poultry Australia (FREPA) spokesperson Meg Parkinson has cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction to the proposals. The 20,000 figure “was not actually proposed”, she said; “it was a part of the general discussion on what AECL may decide”.

According to the RSPCA, 11.6 million battery hens live in Australia in “less space each than an A4 piece of paper”. While Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Norway have banned battery cages, Australia has adopted no such approach. The European Union is set to ban the practice by 2012.

Peter Fray

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