Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Free Range Eggs - what's in a name?

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. 

Lee McCosker, a spokeswoman for Humane Choice, said the group complained to the ACCC more than a year ago about the egg corporation's plans to dramatically increase stocking densities. "When we learnt that the egg corporation had applied for a certification trademark we appealed to the ACCC to reject the application because of the unacceptable proposal to increase stocking rates and the lack of consultation with the egg industry,'' Ms McCosker said.

"It appears the intention of the egg corporation was to present a standard to the ACCC that suited the larger industrialised producers while seriously marginalising the genuine free-range farmer.

''We can only trust that the ACCC has recognised this and also acknowledged that the consumer will be disadvantaged if this standard were to ever make it into the marketplace.''

Phil Westwood, the president of the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association, said there was ''considerable anger'' within the egg industry.

He said the egg corporation was ''more interested in meeting the agendas of the major supermarket chains and corporate operators rather than the many legitimate farmers across Australia'' (SMH).

As they say, politics makes for strange bedfellows. It would seem that in this case animal advocates and small-scale producers are allies in a battle against big corporate operations, with the ACCC as the mediator. 

If the Australian Egg Corporation is successful in having the term free-range redefined it will reveal a great deal about the power of food manufacturers versus the authority of the state. It will mean that federal codes of practice can be rendered obsolete with relative ease. 

I look forward to learning how the ACCC rules.  


1 comment:

  1. Let's hope that the ACCC is able to cut through all the industry hype! The standards proposed by the Australian Egg Corporation are obscene.