Thursday, July 01, 2010

Good hearing from the Australian Egg Corporation

Seven free range egg farmers met with James Kellaway, managing director of the Australian Egg Corporation on Wednesday and we had a good hearing.
There was very strong discussion about the AECL's new draft standards for free range egg production and vocal concern that the proposed stocking density was not based on any scientific assessment. Mr Kellaway was unable to demonstrate that any standards anywhere in the world allowed a stocking density of 20,000 or even 10,000 birds per hectare. This proposal was seen as an example of the reasons for a high level of mistrust of the egg industry amongst consumers.
To put it in perspective, the proposed stocking rate would allow as many as 2000 hens on an average quarter acre suburban block.

Mr Kellaway took away with him our views that
  • The maximum stocking density should remain at 1500 birds per hectare even though we all believe that density is already too high. (The Free Range Farmers Association stocking density is 750 birds per hectare)
  • A stocking density of 20,000 birds per hectare is unsustainable and is likely to cause severe erosion and contamination problems
  • Hens should have access to an outdoor range once they are six weeks old (not locked in sheds until they are are 25 weeks old as in the AECL proposal)
  • No beak trimming of birds designated as free range
  • If the AECL adopts the draft standards they should not use the term 'free range' – they should use the existing terminology of 'Barn Laid' or adopt a term such as 'Lot Fed' or 'Cage Free'.
  • The AECL's consumer research was not qualitative and the proposed definition of free range production does not reflect the views of people who actually buy free range eggs.

The meeting lasted almost three hours and James Kellaway undertook to ensure that our concerns were discussed prior to any decision being taken to adopt new standards. That still did not give us a great deal of confidence in the outcome because the AECL's voting system is based on the number of birds owned by each member. So the big operators always get through what they want and the new proposed standards will enable major producers to mislead consumers by legally labelling their eggs as 'free range' and charging a premium even though they do not bear the additional costs of genuine free range production methods. Even if a 'one vote per farm' was allowed the big operators would still have the numbers because some own 20 or 30 farms or even more.

Stocking densities:
750 birds per hectare equals a Dry Sheep Equivalent of 15.
1,500 birds per hectare equals a DSE of 30
20,000 birds per hectare equals a DSE of 400

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