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Is a national standard for free range eggs on the way?

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Australian producers could soon have clarity over just what free range means, with state and territory ministers announcing this month action will be taken to develop a draft national standard for free range eggs.

In response to a growing consumer demand for transparency and ethical produce, state and territory ministers said on June 13 work on developing a national policy will be spearheaded by the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading.

There is currently no national or legally enforceable definition of free range in Australia and companies have previously been slapped with fines for claiming their eggs were free range.

According to the NSW Office of Fair Trading, a draft standard could include a definition of free range as well as minimum labelling requirements for product packaging.

Phillip Westwood, owner of Victorian egg farmer Freeranger, told SmartCompany as a small producer he welcomes the introduction of a national standard as it will enhance consumer confidence in his product and will create a more even playing field for smaller ethical companies.

But he cautioned that divergent opinions as to what ethical poultry farming standards should be would take some time—possibly one year—to resolve.   

“We fully support the need for a national standard but at this stage we don’t know the wording and possible loopholes,” says Westwood.  

“The Queensland government has already said it doesn’t like restrictions on the number of hens per hectare, and Victoria’s Agriculture Minister, Peter Walsh, is known to favour industry self-regulation,” says Westwood.  

“Hopefully the standard will limit the number of fowls per hectare to 1500 and prevent the big boys from falsely labelling their products,” he says.

However, Westwood says he doubts there will ever be “real free-range eggs in major supermarkets because of quantity and volume demands”.

“Our eggs are distributed through places like smaller health food stores,” he says.  

John Coward, chief executive of Queensland United Egg Producers, told SmartCompany he also supports the standard but focusing on the number of birds per hectares is not practical.

“It is not about the number of birds per square hectare, it is about the way you manage the life of them,” says Coward.

“The process should accelerate the guidelines for the model code of practice for the welfare of poultry to provide uniformity and legislation in all states,” he says.  

“Standardisation should be dealt with by the agricultural, animal welfare and environment ministers and with consumer demands in mind. Then it will offer uniformity, transparency and clarity.”

NSW Fair Trading Minister Matthew Mason-Cox has said he will prepare a draft free range definition for discussion at the next meeting of the ministerial forum.

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