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

Monday, September 28, 2009

Letter in Canberra Times - Ban Battery Farms

This letter was in the Canberra Times on September 28.
I would like to lend my support for the condemnation of battery hens. On our farm in England we had over 5000 laying hens in large open pens.

Of their own accord they would go into the large sheds overnight for protection from foxes etc. In these large pens we planted our apple orchard where the hens kept insect pests such as codling moth in control without the use of chemical sprays, and the manure fed the trees.

The hens were able to supplement their food by picking up grit naturally for shell production.

When the dreaded fowl pest disease spread throughout Britain in the late '50s it was the battery hens that succumbed to it. Hundreds of thousands of hens were burnt and properties were quarantined for up to three months.

We used to supply eggs to the Ovaltine factory nearby who had, I think in the order of 10,000 laying hens all in battery cages. The birds were all destroyed when the disease spread through their sheds. They were allowed to restock after the quarantine period and within weeks their restocked birds caught the disease again.

The factory then relied heavily on farmers with healthy non-battery hens kept in the open air and all our hens proved resistant to the disease.

Battery hens are in a situation that they simply cannot resist disease.

That was a real learning experience for me of which I have never forgotten. Hens kept in large barns is the lesser of two evils but will never replace hens kept in large open air pens and every effort must be made to ban the use of battery hens.

Cedric Bryant, Watson

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The latest Organic con

It's amazing what people can get away with. There's one egg farmer who is selling his own version of 'organic' eggs at over $9 a dozen – and people in Melbourne are falling over themselves to buy them.
He has come up with a sham organisation which accredits member farms. The organisation acknowledges the National Organic Standard 2008 (a new version of the Standard dated July 2009 should be approved this year) – but there is no process to ensure that member farms meet those standards.
Inspections are undertaken by other members of the group who have no qualifications or experience in conducting audits or inspections. It's just a back-slapping exercise to con gullible consumers into paying more for 'organic' eggs. And it looks like he is getting away with it because of slack controls over the certification process.
There are seven approved organic certification bodies in Australia (and that's part of the probem). They are: National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Ltd; Australian Certified Organic; Bio-Dynamic Research Institute; Organic Growers of Australia; Safe Food Queensland; The Organic Food Chain Pty Ltd and Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers.
They all have tight inspection criteria, meet international standards and the whole system is overseen by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).
All very tightly controlled to maintain the integrity of the organic status of the food produced.
The only trouble is that AQIS only imposes the rules for exports. It doesn't care what happens in the domestic market – so any clown can set up an organic certification system to squeeze extra dollars out of consumers without the costs of meeting real organic standards.
If it wasn't so serious it would be a joke!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An open letter to the Minister for Agriculture

The Hon Tony Burke MP
Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
PO Box 6022

Dear Minister,
Re: The lack of a clear national definition for free range eggs
Recent on-going publicity highlighting dubious practices in the egg industry shows that it is time for consumers to be protected from unscrupulous producers. I urge you to frame legislation which clearly defines the term 'Free Range' so it is more aligned with consumer expectations.
Research at farmers' markets has demonstrated that consumers who currently buy free range eggs do so because they believe that the hens are not de-beaked and that they are able to range all day on vegetated land.
Perhaps to satisfy the major industry producers, there needs to be two definitions – one for intensive free range and one for traditional free range
Yours sincerely
Anne Westwood
Please contact the Minister if you think there should be a realistic definition of the term 'free range'.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Egg group figures run foul of free-range

This article by KELLY BURKE appeared in various publications around Australia on September 6

Photo: Andrew Meares

An analysis of egg industry data has confirmed what most consumers have suspected it is doubtful enough free-range layer hens in the country exist to produce the number of eggs labelled free-range.
From January 2006 to January 2007 the free-range flock would have had to grow by more than 37 per cent to match the increased sale of free-range eggs in the grocery sector, as recorded by the Australian Egg Corporation in its annual reports.
Over that time the number of eggs sold in the grocery market jumped from 811 million to 971 million and the proportion of those sold as free-range rose from 20.3 per cent to 23.4 per cent.
But at the same time the total number of eggs produced dropped from 3 billion to 2.8 billion, and the overall flock of laying hens decreased by 6 per cent.
The total free-range flock would have had to grow from 891,000 hens to 1.22 million to meet the free-range sales figures.
Greens M P John Kaye, who used his maths P hD to crunch the industry's data, said 200,000 free-range chickens appeared to be missing in action in 2006-07, and about 36.8 million eggs labelled free-range- just over l6 per cent - would have to have been bam- or cage-laid.
"Either the industry's making up the figures as it goes along or there's dodgy producers who are getting away with calling eggs free-range when they are not," he said." In some cases 'free-range' is nothing more than a marketing exercise to boost sales and prices."
With giant retailers such as Woolworths recording an increase in demand from consumers for free-range eggs from 32 per cent to 36 per cent over the past year alone, the anomalies in the chicken-to-egg ratio highlighted an urgent need for formal accreditation and labelling regulations, Dr Kaye said
Egg Corporation spokeswoman Jacquiline Baptista said it was not possible to reveal how many free-range layer hens existed in Australia, or provide year-on-year figures of flock growth, as total bird numbers came from the hatcheries that did not record which chicks ended up in which production system.
She said the Egg Corporation" supports any moves to investigate product substitution, as this practice undercuts honest farmers who do the right thing and also devalues their premium product".
The Egg Corporation said it used registered third-party auditors for its voluntary accreditation program, Egg Corp Assured.
But egg producer Tony Coote, whose Mulloon Creek Natural Farms east of Canberra supplies the Harris Farm stores in NSW, said consumers buying only Egg Corp Assured eggs might not be getting what they thought they had paid for because the Egg Corporation set the free range bar too low.
Large free-range operators were allowed to crowd thousands of hens in giant sheds containing all the flock's needs, so very few birds ventured out to forage.
"You can't believe all the pictures you see, with birds roaming on green grass. That's just not so in many cases." Mr Coote said.
* Birds continuously housed in cages in a shed, with a minimum floor space of 550 sq cm per bird.
* Beak-trimming permitted.
* Birds continuously housed indoors but free to roam within the shed, which may have several levels.
* Stocking capacity not to exceed l4 birds a square metre.
* Beak-trimming permitted.
FREE RANGE (Egg Corporation and Primary Industries standing committee)
* Housed in sheds with access to an outdoor range.
* Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed 14 birds a square metre.
* Maximum 1500 birds a hectare.
* Beak trimming permitted.
FREE RANGE (Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia)
* Unrestricted access to free-range run during daylight hours'
* Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed seven birds a sq m'
* Maximum 750 birds a hectare.
* Beak-trimming prohibited, as deemed unnecessary if above housing conditions are adhered to

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Pullets Rule

Our latest flock of pullets (200 birds) laid 182 eggs yesterday and 186 today (a 93% lay rate) which makes them our best perfoming flock at the moment! Yeayyyy!!! It took them a while get up to speed.
It still intriques me that some flocks start laying at 16 weeks but you won't see an egg from some others until they are 20 weeks old. They can be the same breed and well grown! It makes planning difficult because we need to balance our supply to meet demand and we have a massive over-demand problem during the tourist season.
And to compound the problems, 0ur peak terrorist (sorry tourist) season usually coincides with hot weather (which the chooks don't like).
But we still like egg farming.