Waikato TimesLarge-scale egg producers running flocks more than five times the size of small farmers believe consumers can decide whether their free-range credentials are up to scratch.
A prominent Pukekohe egg farmer fears well-meaning shoppers will be faced with free-range eggs produced under a raft of standards, despite new welfare rules due this year.
Free-range egg company FRENZ director Rob Darby says as much as two-thirds of eggs sold as free-range are from large-scale producers, because of holes in the welfare code.
A drawn-out review of the code has centred on cage production, and Mr Darby says the draft rules will allow big producers to keep stretching the "free-range" label for profit.
But major producers running flocks of up to 8000 birds say the standards FRENZ wants are not viable, and would drive free-range farmers to the wall.
Egg Producers Federation executive director Michael Brooks said the industry-funded federation had endorsed the 2500-hens-per-hectare stocking densities being proposed.
He said the industry was split over the definition of "free-range" but the new code would be the only independent definition driven solely by hen welfare imperatives, and finally give both egg farmers and consumers some certainty around "free-range" egg labelling.
Mr Brooks said the federation had heard allegations that free-range labelling was misused: "Tell us the name of the producers and we'll go to the Commerce Commission on it."
"While some smaller free-range farmers disagreed with the birds-per-hectare number others saw it as positive as getting a line in the sand – a figure that put a limit and gave it a status not given under the current code," he said. "It was a case of getting a balance."
Primary Industries Minister David Carter is expected to issue the new code in mid-year.
Dr John Hellstrom is chairman of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (Nawac), which has spent two years drafting minimum standards. He says defining the term "free-range" is not its job and he is satisfied the rules protect laying hens' welfare.
"As far as free-range is concerned, the main points of contention were hen stocking densities, and also the protection of the term," Dr Hellstrom said. "One of the things we've been grappling with is ... we're trying to develop welfare standards. We're not an organisation to protect marketing terms: that is outside the legislation's brief and our terms of reference. What we've decided to do is not refer to free-range at all in the draft code, but to instead talk about standards for birds that are farmed outdoors. That way we avoid any confusion. It's a marketing term, it's not a welfare term."
Woodland brand spokesperson Hamish Sutherland said commercial realities had to be weighed to allow the industry to meet rising consumer demand for free-range eggs. "If the stocking densities get too low you would end up having the entire South island covered in chooks. There does have to be some commercial balance," he said.
Dr Hellstrom said stocking densities varied in New Zealand and overseas, and the draft code matched European standards: "Australia, for example, is looking at more than 10,000 birds per hectare, which is hardly free-range."
Mr Darby wanted densities of 1000 hens/hectare entrenched in the new code. "They are suggesting in that code something more than three times that. That is not sustainable and it will cause huge problems. But it will satisfy the big guys because they want 30,000 birds in a shed and they don't want to be restricted."
Mr Brooks said large shed sizes allowed automated egg collection, which significantly reduced labour costs, a factor in ensuring certainty of supply for major supermarkets.