Hens have been in the news of late. Starting with Tasmania's decision to ban the batter cage, and associated claims that this could seriously increase the price of eggs down south. Such claims are based on the European experience which has been very different, and price increases in the UK also reflect a temporary readjustment, not a new price. Nonetheless, such discussions are keeping the media's focus on the battery cage.
But another egg related matter is starting to draw attention away from the Tasmanian battery cage issue, and that is the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission's (ACCC) decision to hold a public inquiry into a proposed new definition of the term 'free range'.
The story begins with a move by the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) to register a new trade mark that would have defined the term 'free range' for the purposes of labelling food.
The reason the Australian Egg Corporation's proposal is controversial is that it stipulates a maximum stock density of 20,000 birds per hectare. That density is significantly greater than the current industry standard, outlined in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry, which sets the stock density at 1,500 birds per hectare.
Naturally animal protection organisations are up in arms and do not support an increase in the stock density. Animals Australia has a message on its website encouraging concerned members to make a submission to the ACCC before June 20th. It is also asking people to contact their state Member of Parliament (MP) and ask that the stock density definition contained in the Code be legislated in their state. This would set a legal maximum stock density and that legal definition would prevail ahead of the Australian Egg Corporation's proposed new definition.
NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has done likewise. Senator Rhiannon had a chance to question the Australian Egg Corporation about their new free range definition during Senate Estimates on May 22. She is also encouraging concerned members of the community to e-mail the ACCC about the issue.
So far the story has been rather pedestrian: egg manufacturers want to increase the bird stock density, most likely because it will increase profits. Animal groups oppose the change because they are concerned that an increase in the stock density will have a negative impact on the birds' quality of life.
What I have found fascinating is the insight the ACCC case has afforded me into the politics of the agriculture sector. I tend to think of the battle lines as being drawn between the agriculture sector and the animal protection movement. But of course, both the agriculture sector and the animal protection movement have their own internal wars that are fought from time to time.
In the case of the Australian Egg Corporation's move to increase the stock density for free range, egg laying hens, it would seem that the battle lines have been drawn between small-scale free range farmers and big corporate operators who wish to occupy the market.
When I first heard of the matter I immediately assumed that animal advocates had influenced the ACCC's decision to open the issue to public consultation. But it appears that is not the case. Rather, existing, small-scale free range farmers are driving it.