The competition watchdog has released further information about the labelling of free range eggs in a bid to give producers a better understanding of their rights and obligations under the Australian Consumer Law.
However, egg producers simply want the federal government to hurry up and introduce national guidelines.
Farmers have been crying out for greater certainty from the government for many years, calling for a national standard on what free range actually means so that businesses big and small don’t get stung for inadvertently doing the wrong thing.
There is currently no national definition of free range eggs in Australia, however state and territory ministers agreed mid-last year on the need for urgent reform.
In the meantime, numerous businesses have been slapped with massive fines.
Last month Queensland-based Darling Downs Fresh Eggs was hit with a $250,000 fine by the Federal Court after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission alleged the business’s laying hens had been confined to barns.
The court also ordered the company to introduce a compliance program and publish corrective notices.
Geoff Sondergeld, the chief executive of R L Adams – the company behind Darling Downs Fresh Eggs – told SmartCompany in a statement his business was fined because it was trying to keep its chickens indoors during an avian influenza outbreak.
Madelaine Scott, a producer of free range and organic eggs in rural Victoria and founder of Madelaine’s Eggs, told SmartCompany this morningegg producers just want certainty from the government.
“There needs to be a lot more guidelines and even rules around how many birds by how many hectares,” Scott says.
“Sometimes you do have to lock your chickens up for a period of time if something [like an influenza] is happening. To change your packaging for a few weeks is so expensive. “Guidelines coming in sooner rather than later would be very helpful.”
The ACCC’s most recent guidelines say egg producers are making a claim that their eggs are free range if they use the words “free range” on their packaging or show pictures of chickens roaming freely – on a grassy field, for example.
The competition watchdog says it considers “free range” to mean most hens move about freely on an open range on most days.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims said in a statement the labelling of free range eggs requires a “common sense” approach.
“If it is not normal for most of the hens to leave the barn and to move about freely on an open range on most days, making a free range claim is likely to be misleading,” Sims said.
“The ACCC acknowledges that laying hens may spend periods indoors and we do not expect to always see hens on the range or expect every hen to be outside every day.
“Indeed, the ACCC does not expect farmers to use a precise approach of tracking hens or head counts.
“On the other hand, we reject claims that it is acceptable to tell consumers that eggs are from free range hens when the outdoor range is not regularly used by the hens – whether this is the result of farming practices or for any other reason.”
Free range eggs account for more than 20% of the four billion eggs produced annually in Australia, according to IBISWorld.