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Cheep Shot

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Verna Simpson, Director with the Humane Society International (HSI) explains how it’s back to square one when it comes to the standard for free range eggs.
HSI started campaigning for a standard for free range eggs nine years ago when the desire for free range eggs really grew. They considered stocking densities of 1,500 as the goal for free range. It was the egg producers who started to lie about what went into egg cartons, HSI complain to the ACCC about stocking densities of 10,000 and more with hens kept inside.  On the back of that, the ACCC began a process to come up with a true legislated standard for free range in order to take the confusion about free range out of the market place. Since the Model Code was developed in 2002 around $1.4 billion has been paid on false credence claims.


Despite endless consultations nothing happened. In the end the government took it out of the hands of the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and moved it to Treasury and Consumer Affairs. This was heartening for HSI since some 200,000 people joined in and Choice had hundreds of thousands taking up the issue making it a big issue with consumers, 45% of whom want free range eggs.  
Right: What do 10,000 hens per hectare look like? This version of 'free ranging' requires quite a bit of close up and cheek by jowl interactions. Image by Danielle Grindlay

Some 12,000 people wrote to Treasury and only 12 of those viewable on-line wanted stocking densities of 10,000 to be called free range. The 12 represented the big end of town egg producers (Coles, Egg Farmers of Queensland) and strangely those 12 held more weight than the thousands against. Barnaby Joyce, two weeks before Treasury’s report, decided what the standard would be and told said he would tell trade ministers on 31 March that stocking densities of up to 10,000 would be called free range!

True free range farmers cannot differentiate themselves in the market place on that stocking density and consumers can’t find their true free range eggs, making the situation worse than before. The Prime Minister has been written to but has not responded. People will now have to be educated to find truly free range eggs. Choice already has an app that provides consumers with stocking densities.

Above Daniel Goldstein and Joanne Rowley sorting consumers signed campaign support postcards    
The small free range producers cannot dictate a retail price. One producer’s eggs (Kangaroo Island Free Range) sell in IGA for $6 whereas at David Jones they are $18. HSI has to meet again with the ACCC because they don’t know where they stand with the new standards. HSI is hoping, however, that free range eggs will be an election issue. Mick Keogh who has been brought into the ACCC as the Commissioner of Agriculture, is no friend of free range. He runs a blog every week where he calls people like HSI idiots and abuses welfare groups like Voiceless and Animals Australia.  

The health of small flocks of free range chickens has proven to be robust and there has never been a case of bird flu in those flocks. There was one case in Young from a producer that called itself free range but they had 420,000 birds (on three hectares!) which had to be killed. Barnaby Joyce still cites that case as an example against free range but the council puts it down to bad management with too many birds creating too much waste
Left:... and the true free range eggs are..... the bewildering array of egg labels in cluttered supermarket shelves. Thankfully Choice has developed an App to use in store!

The Greens have put up proposed legislation for true free range eggs in NSW, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT and the Labor Party has supported them which gives some hope that the states can influence the federal government. Verna Simpson hopes that free range standards and stocking densities become an election issue. 

In that light perhaps the interventions of Barnaby Joyce should have a label that reflects his actions – a cheep shot.

Verna Simpson was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images from Verna Simpson. Summary text by Victor Barry, April 2016.

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