Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Land - Egg Corp stuffed!!

Here's an article in The Land newspaper by journalist Andrew Marshall

EGG industry plans to kick-start the year with a new national quality assurance trademark for free-range eggs have been taken back to the drawing board.
Peak industry body, the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL), has bowed to increasing consumer scepticism about its quality assurance guidelines which would have approved free-range farms running as many as 20,000 hens a hectare. Critics of the high stocking rate believe AECL was jolted into withdrawing its trademark plan after a big pre-Christmas fine was imposed on a NSW duck producer convicted of falsely advertising its shedded poultry as free-range. The maximum stocking density advocated by well-established free-range egg producers is about 1500 birds/ha - a standard that has also been reinforced by law in Queensland - while some industry purists insist on stocking densities below 700/ha. AECL's application for a certification trademark had intended to provide consumers with a national benchmark that recognised a recently enhanced Quality Assurance (QA) program across the industry. The QA program for cage, barn-laid and free-range eggs was developed during three years of consultation with scientists, egg producers, regulators and the broader community. Its aim has been to set minimum egg production standards for hen welfare, food safety, farm biosecurity, environmental stewardship and egg labelling. "However, in response to concerns from some members of the community regarding three of the 171 minimum standards in the proposed QA program AECL has decided to withdraw the application," the corporation explained in a statement released just prior to Christmas. It said some structural elements of the program and "other observations" had helped mould its decision to halt the trademark program, which had been proposed for a late 2012 launch. In November the egg corporation copped a stern warning from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which questioned whether the trademark was misleading. ACCC received more than 1700 submissions about free-range eggs - most of them challenging the perceived high stocking capacity proposed for farms which qualified for free-range certification. It said the accreditation did not appear to fit consumer expectations of free-range farming and the consumer watchdog was unlikely to approve the trademark. Many free range producers also hope the ACCC will go further and start legal proceedings against some free-range producers who are believed to be running significantly more than 20,000 hens/ha, or are substituting cage or barn-laid eggs to meet the fast rising demand for free-range lines. Vocal Victorian campaigner against AECL's plans to make 20,000/ha a maximum standard for the industry, Phil Westwood, said the ACCC had already indicated its intentions pursuing a NSW duck producer in the Federal Court over misleading "open range" claims. On December 19 Windsor-based Pepe's Ducks was ordered to pay a $375,000 fine for advertising and packaging claims about its ducks being raised on the "open range" and "grown nature's way". Pepe's ducks had been grown in barns and were not allowed outdoors. The ACCC said the fine was a win for enforcing honesty in poultry industry advertising where consumers wanted labels to be "true and accurate". Eggs labelled free-range have been fast gaining market share, now representing 30 per cent of Australia's 13 million daily egg sales. But Mr Westwood believed about a third of those eggs may be sourced from intensive free-range farms carrying up to 40,000 chooks/ha or more, or farms keeping hens in barns most of the time. He said submissions to the ACCC showed most consumers believed free-range farms should running less than 1500 hens in grassy grazing conditions, not bare paddocks or big sheds with limited outdoor access. "I know a lot of big egg producers want to be able to produce massive volumes of eggs just as they do with cage facilities, but I don't think there's any room for the AECL to make compromises here," Mr Westwood said. "In fact, 1500 hens/ha is already a significant compromise." He said many mid-sized cage egg producers also strongly opposed AECL's big free-range capacity plans because it would encourage a flood of cheap free-range eggs on the market, forcing cage egg prices down to compete for market share. Margins were already slim for many egg farmers supplying the major brand names and generic supermarket labels, and getting tighter as electricity and feed grain costs rose. AECL said at this point it still intended to submit a new trade mark application after reviewing issues raised and making any necessary amendments to the minimum standards. It noted there was no opposition to the standards for cage or barn-laid egg production in the new QA program.

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