This week poultry-related labelling has come under fire, with the Australian Egg Corporation drafting new egg labelling standards and legal action from the ACCC against KFC’s chicken supplier Steggles.

New standards proposed by the AEC would mean its standard for “free range” eggs extended from 1500 to 20,000 birds per hectare. Though it stresses this is a “minimum” standard, the change has drawn criticism from free-range farmers and animal welfare groups.

On Tuesday the ACCC launched legal action against Steggles for proclaiming its barn-raised chickens “roam free”. Steggles hass said it will fight the charges but KFC Australia swiftly removed any reference to the term off its website.

Labelling of poultry remains a contentious issue among producers, industry bodies and animal welfare groups; debate often surfacing in relation to definitive standards. In particular eggs now appear on retail shelves wrapped in myriad descriptors, but how do consumers make sense of it all? Crikey cracks the case …

How is Australian egg production currently regulated?

Egg producers in Australia are required to comply with the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry. This provides guidelines for the minimum standard of care for animal welfare for poultry, according to state and territory legislation such as Queensland’s Animal Care and Protection Act 2001.

Section 2.1.1 of the code recognises three types of poultry housing in egg production and defines them as follows:

Cage systems
Birds in cage systems are continuously housed in cages within a shed,

Barn systems
Birds in barn systems are free to roam within a shed which may have vertical levels. The floor may be based on litter and/or other material such as slats or wire mesh

Free range systems
Birds in free-range systems are housed in sheds and have access to an outdoor range.

Are egg producers required to meet certain guidelines to label their product as “barn laid” and “free range”?

In short, not as yet. According to industry body the Australian Egg Corporation’s current egg labelling guidelines, associated egg businesses must identify their type of housing method according to Model Code of Practice definitions. They also require the code’s definitions be printed on the packaging or supplied on the producer’s website.

Currently there is no legally enforceable definition of the term “free range” or “barn laid”, and egg businesses do not require particular accreditation to identify their product in this way. With companies now adding terms such as “farm range” to the labelling repertoire, Ingrid Just, from consumer group Choice, says consumers are rightfully confused.

“Farmers can use ‘free to roam’ or ‘farm range’ because these words are marketing tools for companies that build certain expectations for this kind of animal husbandry, but without an agreed standard consumers don’t have confidence in the product that they are buying,” she said. “Consumers are paying a premium for products labelled free range and there is no current guideline they need to abide by.”

How can you make sure the eggs you are buying really match the label attributed to the product?

Despite a current lack of guidelines, there are several national and state associations dedicated to enforcing their own assigned set of standards. Producers who meet their specified standards are permitted to use the association’s label on their packaging to demonstrate their accreditation.

AEC has its own quality assurance program run and enforced by subsidiary Egg Corp Assured (ECA). This program allows accredited egg businesses to apply for an ECA Trademark, which AEC claims will increase “consumer confidence in your product and the egg industry”. Its current standard for “free range” accreditation (as outline in the Model Code of Practice) stipulates there be no more than 1500 birds per hectare in an outdoor area, but new draft standards would increase this number to no more than 20,000 birds per hectare.

Free Range Egg & Poultry Association of Australia is a self-appointed “national representation of state-based associations practising and promoting free-range egg and poultry farming”. Producers accredited by FREPA are audited regularly to comply with set standards such as a maximum range density of 750 birds per hectare outdoors and seven birds per square metre indoors. FREPA also has several state-based accredited affiliates such as the Free Range Farmers Association Inc. in Victoria who have their own accreditation requirements.

The RSPCA also promote its own “Approved Farming Scheme” for poultry production, where both barn-laid and free-range eggs are endorsed following “stringent and regular inspection”. Its standards demand all businesses allow seven birds per square metre indoors, and if they have an outdoor space (free range) a maximum range density of 1500 birds per hectare. Endorsed egg producers are entitled to print the RSPCA logo on their packaging.

However, accreditation from these bodies is not required for egg producers to label their product as “barn laid” or “free-range”.

What about organic eggs?

Organic eggs also require accreditation from an independent body to be deemed “certified”. Eggs accredited by Biological Farmers Australia carry their “Australian Certified Organic” logo, and among other standards should not exceed five birds per metre indoors, and 1000 birds per hectare outdoors.

Has there been a review into establishing industry standards?

Yes. Earlier this year the federal government released it’s Food Labelling Report, chaired by the former federal health minister Neal Blewett. Among its recommendations was the introduction of an established standard for all poultry terms such as “free range”, “barn laid” and “caged”.

Just said Choice supports these recommendations and would like to see legal enforcement of these standards: “The government said they would respond but we are yet to see any action on that. While there is movement in the industry on agreed terms, there’s a real sticking point as to what those terms are. Given eggs and poultry live and produce their food all around the country together with the transportation of poultry around the country, this really needs to be enforceable by the Food Standards Code.”

Earlier this year Greens MP John Kaye introduced a private member’s bill to the NSW Upper House entitled Truth in Labelling (Free-range eggs). Dr Kaye’s bill calls for a legislated definition for “free-range” egg production and enforced labelling requirements for free-range, barn-laid and cage eggs. Soon to be debated in parliament, the bill says “free-range” egg producers should have a maximum of 750 birds per hectare and a stocking density maximum of six birds per metre.

The AEC has also called for legally enforced definitions in relation to egg labelling, in accordance with the guidelines set by their draft standards.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey