Animal welfare groups and the Greens fear the appointment of a former farming lobbyist as commissioner to the federal consumer watchdog will derail the agency's free range egg-related enforcement work.
In February, Mick Keogh, executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, stepped into the newly created role of agriculture commissioner at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which has so far prosecuted or penalised six unscrupulous "free range" egg producers.
Calls for accurate free-range egg labelling
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Calls for accurate free-range egg labelling
The "big end of egg town" is worried clearer labelling regulations would undermine their profits, says Choice CEO Alan Kirkland.
His critics claim he was installed by the Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to "infiltrate" the ACCC and impose a Big Agriculture agenda, pointing to his ongoing role at the Australian Farm Institute, past lobbying efforts, and anti-free range articles, including one with the line: "While consumer perceptions of what constitutes free range are undoubtedly influenced by anthropomorphic projections and fictional, idyllic depictions of farming, it is highly questionable whether those conditions actually result in improved animal welfare or health outcomes for the animals in question."
Fairfax Media approached Mr Keogh for comment via the ACCC.
The ACCC's chairman Rod Sims leapt to Mr Keogh's defence, saying he brought tremendous knowledge on every sector of agriculture that enriched debates and was invaluable.
He also said Mr Keogh was one of seven commissioners who together would decide whether to initiate legal proceedings and other major enforcement action.
"He spends three days a week at the commission and his other two days are at the Farm Institute. Some call it a lobby group, I look at it as an agricultural research institution. The cross-fertilisation will be very helpful," he said.
In reference to the quoted article, he said ACCC's legal moves on free range eggs was a consumer issue about labelling and not an animal welfare one.
"You raise the chicken as you want, but make sure the labelling is not misleading consumers," he said.
Federal Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon accused Deputy Prime Minister Joyce of appointing the agriculture commissioner to bypass legislative reform - the creation of a legal standard for free range eggs - and influence the regulator.
Submissions to the free range egg labelling consultation have now closed and consumer affairs ministers will meet at the end of this month to discuss the next step towards stamping out labelling confusion.
"Any free-range egg standard signed off by ministers later this month will need to be actively enforced by the ACCC and state consumer affairs bodies," she said.
"There is a risk that Mr Keogh's appointment will undermine any standard passed by the ministers and prevent it from being properly enforced at a federal level."
Choice fries industry's marketing tactics
On Wednesday morning on the lawns of Parliament House, consumer group Choice hosted a breakfast for farmers and politicians to "fry" the egg industry's marketing tactics and claims.
Choice's chief executive Alan Kirkland said the egg market was awash with dodgy packaging and questionable claims designed to convince consumers to pay a price premium.
"Politicians will decide whether to clean up the free-range market. With furious lobbying from large-scale egg producers, there is a real risk ministers will cave in and allow the industry to keep cashing in on consumer confusion."
They targeted the "chook cam" tactic, which invites shoppers to watch live footage of egg farms. Choice found edited footage and limited camera coverage.
In one case, Choice tracked a chook cam for 2.5 days and saw only two chickens wander outside.
Egg industry hits back
Egg Farmers Australia rejected Choice's claims, saying its research showed 86 per cent of consumers would buy eggs labelled free range as long as chickens have access to the outdoors.
"It's up to the hen if they want to go out, or stay in. The issue of whether all of the hens are guaranteed to go outside is only influential to a minority," said egg farmer Dion Andary from EFA.
"We should not have to do a head count of our chooks to figure out if they are going to satisfy Choice's expectations especially when they are not reflecting the views of their members.
The EFA is pushing for a free range definition that says hens should be "unconfined within a ventilated hen house, have access to and are free to roam and forage on an outdoor range area during daylight hours in a managed environment; and have a maximum outdoor stocking density of one hen per square metre [10,000 hens a hectare]".
Animal advocates upset over ACCC appointment
Verna Simpson from Humane Society International said the ACCC was doing a "beautiful job" in tackling misleading free range claims and was "outraged" by Mr Keogh's appointment.
Emmanuel Giuffre from Voiceless said while they needed to learn more about his role, the ACCC's effectiveness stemmed from its independence and this was potentially compromised.
"The ACCC's work has been instrumental and pivotal in protecting consumers and genuine free range farmers. So in our view, we have concerns about anything that potentially waters down its effectiveness or taints its independence," he said.