Tuesday, September 29, 2009

High Noon on the Range

This is part of an article from the Epicure section of today's TheAge newspaper.

Whether it's chicken, eggs or pork, there is no legal definition for 'free range', and this has some premium producers concerned, writes Mary O'Brien.

The term "free-range" is mainly used in connection with eggs, chicken meat and pork. But there is no legal definition of "free-range" and a small organic farmer's "free-range" is very different to the "free-range" of a mass egg producer with 120,000 chickens which often have little more space than their caged counterparts.

Choice consumer group has been campaigning for years for tighter regulation of the industry.

"We would like consumers to have greater confidence that when they are purchasing a product that is labelled free-range, that it's produced in a way they would believe is consistent with free-range practices," Choice's Clare Hughes says.

Earlier this month, free-range egg farmers renewed calls for an independent accreditation system after figures released earlier this month showed there are not enough free-range hens to produce the number of "free-range" eggs being sold.

The number-crunching was carried out by NSW Greens MP John Kaye, also a mathematician, who says one in six eggs labelled free-range on retail shelves are actually cage or barn-laid.

Free Range Farmers Association president Anne Westwood is frustrated by the situation. She says 90 per cent of "free-range" chooks are debeaked, and in big farms they are often unable to find their way outside.

Laid to order

"OUR chooks lay to order; their eggs are sold before they're laid," laughs Gippsland farmer Anne Westwood.

Though she has a waiting list for her Freeranger Eggs, Ms Westwood is not going to expand much more.

She keeps about 1000 chooks, separated into flocks of 200 birds to minimise problems of disease and aggression.

As president of the Free Range Farmers Association, she abides by strict rules and her farm is independently audited.

She encourages her customers from farmers' markets to visit Freeranger Eggs in Grantville to see how chooks can be farmed in a safe, free-range and sustainable environment.

The flocks are enclosed in electro-netted paddocks and guarded by Maremma dogs. They have 24-hour access to pasture and are never locked up. They lay their eggs in eight mobile roosting houses.

"Our customers who are buying free-range eggs want to come to our farm gate and see our chooks running around in the grass with their dogs for protection and with the horses and sheep as well," Ms Westwood says.

She aims to produce 450 dozen eggs a week. Freeranger Eggs cost about $2 a dozen more than standard eggs, but operating costs are higher than for bigger factory farms and they can't buy feed in large quantities.

"I'm frustrated because we're selling a product that is what it is and people who are not are claiming the same status."

Freeranger Eggs are sold at the Organic Edge in Maribyrnong, the Fruit Plaza, Pakenham, farmers' markets at Churchill Island and Pakenham and local stores.
The full article (unfortunately without photos) is at http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/epicure/high-noon-on-the-range/2009/09/28/1253989866327.html

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