Just weeks after a major supplier of free range branded eggs, Free Range Egg Farms (FREF), was found to have breached the Australian Consumer Law, yet another supplier has come under fire by the ACCC and the Federal Court for misleading and deceptive conduct. (Read our blog on the recent FREF prosecution.)
One of the biggest egg producers in Western Australia, Snowdale Holdings Pty Ltd (Snowdale), supplied eggs under the brands Eggs by Ellah, Swan Valley Free Range and Wanneroo Free Range to major supermarkets and retailers. Snowdale claimed, via carton labels and a website, that their hens were free and able to roam open ranges at the Carabooda and Swan Valley farms on most days. As we have heard from the Federal Court before, this is the common understanding of the term “free range” and is heavily relied upon by consumers who part with premium dollars to shop ethically.
In actual fact there was a demonstrable difference between the image evoked by the packaging and the reality of the cramped “industrial style” sheds that housed up to 17,000 laying hens all competing for a chance to get outside. Due to the dense population of hens in the sheds and the insufficient size and number of pop holes, the majority of hens were unable to exit the sheds most days between April 2011 to December 2013.
Snowdale was found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct but a hearing on penalty is yet to be held. Snowdale stated that it no longer worked with the farms in question but nonetheless maintained that the eggs it produced were and continue to be free range. It is considering an appeal. This was also not the first time the quality of the Carabooda farm had come under question, with a negative health inspection in September 2014 which resulted in a warning.
Given the $300,000 penalty recently levelled at FREF for similar conduct, and Snowdale’s reported lack of cooperation, it will be interesting to see how this case concludes.
A national standard
In March this year, a new national standard was agreed by the consumer affairs ministers of each State and Territory. The standard incorporates a legal definition of “free range eggs” which mandates meaningful and regular access to outside areas with no more than 1 hen per average square metre outside, or 10,000 hens per hectare.
The standard will also require that all egg packaging prominently shows the outside stocking density. This will allow consumers to compare the farming practices of different brands, and hopefully restore some confidence in the system.
The standard is expected to be in place sometime before the end of March 2017.
However, the discussion is far from over as interest groups push for a maximum density of 1,500 hens per hectare, and CHOICE continues to advocate boycotts against producers with high stocking densities.
We’ll keep you posted on developments.