Free Range Eggs Labelling Bill 2013

The purpose of the Free Range Eggs Labelling Bill 2013 is to ensure that only eggs produced in free range conditions can be labelled free range eggs in Western Australia.

The free range egg industry in Australia is facing a crisis of classification. The laws surrounding definitions of "free range" egg products are ambiguous.

A growing number of consumers are prepared to pay a higher price for higher welfare standards and the care and managment to proivde an outdoor range. Marketers of eggs know this. As the free range egg market expands and becomes more lucrative, every producer wants a piece of the valuable intellectual property embodied in the words "free range." Some are claiming that premium, in spite of the fact that the eggs they are selling under the free range label are not produced in free range farms. And as the term itself becomes degraded, consumers become more bewildered, and in that confusion they are duped and animal welfare standards are lost.

Simply put, a number of producers are labelling their products as free range without adhering or complying with the voluntary code of conduct. There is evidence to suggest that these producers are also charging premium price.

The Greens believe that consumers should get what they pay for.

The concept of protection for the ‘Free Range Egg’ label has generated a lot of public interest and discussion on how consumer confidence can be improved by linking animal welfare standards for layer hens with product labelling.

The demand for free-range eggs has exploded in recent years. A survey conducted by the Choice consumer group magazine revealed that less than one per cent of free-range egg buyers would be satisfied with a stocking density of 20 000 chickens a hectare. Of those surveyed, 85 per cent stated that the primary reason for their purchase of free-range products was the higher animal welfare standards offered in free-range egg products. The survey also found that 43 per cent of consumers rely only on seeing the words “free range” on packaging when making their purchase decisions.

We now have an environment in which “free range” is used to describe virtually any system which is not a cage system and which provides some access to an outdoor area. In particular, stocking densities for so-called free-range laying hens may vary from 750 birds a hectare for some “purist” free-range producers to 1 500, as required by the Code of Practice for Poultry in Western Australia (2003)—(the Code); 10 000, which is the Coles’ standard; Woolworths' Select brand of free-range eggs also now have 10,000 chickens per hectare; or 20 000, which is the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd preferred standard; and some are even more extreme than that. In these circumstances there is no truth in labelling and consumers have no way of knowing what the term “free range” actually means as they try to choose from a range of options on the supermarket shelf.

This Bill addresses that problem. In a very simple way, the Bill ensures truth in labelling. It defines a free-range egg as being an egg laid by a free-range hen. It then defines a free-range hen as a hen that is kept in certain conditions, and those conditions are set out in the schedule. The Bill prohibits the use of the term “free range” on the packaging of eggs that do not conform to the definitions.

Not surprisingly, the Bill relies on the Code as the guide for the conditions in which free-range hens must be kept. The Code is adopted under section 25 of the Animal Welfare Act 2002, and is based on the “Australian Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry: 4th Edition”. That code was adopted by Australian primary industries ministers in 2002. This means that at the time the Code was drafted, it was uniformly accepted in Australia as the benchmark for the welfare of poultry in Australia.

It is important to address the concerns of intensive farmers directly. This Bill will not prohibit the sale of caged or barn laid eggs. For example, Coles, Woolworths, IGA and the AECL may continue to produce and sell eggs from farms with higher stocking densities, but they may not label them free range. The Bill provides certainty to consumers and does not dictate farming practices.

There is a need to preserve the integrity of the free-range egg market, which has been built up for many years by genuine free range egg farmers. Those farmers would either have to sacrifice their principles and commitment to the animal welfare standards established by the Code, or be forced out of the market by the big producers who do not conform to those standards. By clearly requiring that the term “free-range” may be used only where specific conditions are complied with, the bill will ensure that the rights of farmers, consumers and free-range laying hens are protected.

The Free Range Eggs Labelling Bill 2013 is an amended version of a Bill introduced in late 2012. This amended version was introduced to the Upper House in December 2013, it has yet to be debated.