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Free-range egg definition change rejected

Date

Rachel Wells

Consumers want clear and accurating labelling of eggs, the competition watchdog says.

Consumers want clear and accurating labelling of eggs, the competition watchdog says. Photo: Edwina Pickles

THE competition watchdog has knocked back an application by the Australian Egg Corporation for a certification trade mark that would label eggs as "free range" even when they were laid by hens kept in density levels 13 times the industry's current free range recommendations.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is proposing not to approve the trademark because it believes the proposed standards may mislead consumers about the nature of eggs described as "free range".

While there is no legally enforceable definition of free range, the current free-range egg industry code limits free-range egg producers to 1500 hens per hectare. Under its proposed trade mark, the Australian Egg Corporation proposed increasing that limit to 20,000 hens per hectare.

ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said the commission's initial assessment was informed by more than 1700 submissions from consumers, egg producers, industry associations and animal welfare organisations.

"The strong public interest in this matter shows that consumers want clear and accurate labelling of eggs and the ACCC considers that the Australian Egg Corporation's Certification Trade Mark proposal may be misleading," Ms Court said.

In particular, the ACCC was concerned the proposed certification would allow eggs to be certified as "free range" even when the crowding in open-air pens is significantly greater than those in existing standards. They were also concerned that only a very small proportion of birds actually venture onto the range at any one time, and that hens' beaks are routinely trimmed.

"The ACCC considers that these practices and standards do not accord with consumer expectations about the free range production of eggs," she said.

Consumer group Choice welcomed the ACCC decision and called for a national free-range standard.

It said in a survey conducted earlier this year less than 1 per cent of 900 respondents thought the Australian Egg Corporation's proposed free-range standard met their expectations of what free range means.

"Consumers told Choice that 20,000 birds per hectare is simply not what they expect from free-range eggs and today the ACCC has recognised that," said CHOICE spokeswoman Ingrid Just.

"The ACCC's decision sends a clear message to the AECL that its attempt to set a stocking density that bears no relation to consumer expectation or existing definitions is not OK.

"Choice believes that now, more than ever, we need an official, national free-range standard so Australians can have confidence they are getting what they pay for when they buy free range eggs.

"People are clearly paying a premium for these eggs, yet their expectations of contented clucking chooks roaming around open green pastures aren't always a reality."

Free-range eggs make up almost 40 per cent of eggs sold and are the fastest growing category within egg sales.

The ACCC has called on interested parties to provide further submissions within the next month, before it makes its final assessment early next year.

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