Friday, June 18, 2010

Free Range Con

The Australian Egg Corporation revealed plans on Wednesday night to relax rules for free range egg production and con consumers into paying for eggs labelled as 'free range' even though they are clearly laid in a factory farming environment. Needlesstosay, this has generated extreme anger amongst genuine free range egg producers.

Under the proposal outlined in Melbourne, hens will be allowed to be de-beaked as a matter of course, they can be locked up in sheds for 25 weeks and the stocking density can increase from 1500 to an incredible 20,000 birds per hectare!

The Victorian-based Free Range Farmers Association had two members at the meeting but Anne, president of FRFA, was locked out of the meeting (probably inadvertently - the lifts were shut down at 6.30 when the meeting was due to start and the stairwell doors were locked). The proposed amendments designed for major industry players reinforce the need for a national definition for 'free range' eggs that doesn't mislead consumers into thinking they are buying welfare-friendly eggs.

The AECL, which is about to publicly launch its Egg Corp Assured scheme, set up a working group some time ago to develop words which will allow major farms to continue to produce eggs which can be labelled as 'free range'.

This stupid proposal demonstrates contempt for consumers as the AECL and the big producers clearly believed they would fall for it!

The current definition of 'free range' used by AECL and the big boys in the industry is contained in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry 4th Edition. It officially limits the number of birds to 1500 per hectare and requires farmers to manage the outdoor range to avoid muddy or unsuitable conditions – but there is little enforcement of those conditions and some so-called 'free range' farms have more than twice the number of allowed birds.

Apart from the numbers of hens, a fundamental difference between industry practice and FRFA requirements is the issue of de-beaking. The Free Range Farmers Association prohibits de-beaking (or beak trimming) which is standard practice on most big farms. The Model Code states that 'Every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting chickens for reduced feather pecking and cannibalism'

The AECL's Egg Corp Assured program says it requires accredited farms to  meet the standards of the Model Code, but it does not require those farms to demonstrate any attempt to address the potential problem of feather pecking or cannibalism before resorting to de-beaking the birds.

As well as permitting 20,000 hens per hectare, which will be a totally unsustainable farming practice, the proposed change will allow hens to be permanently locked in sheds until they are 25 weeks old. (They currently must be allowed to range outside once fully feathered at around 6 weeks).

On a real free range farm with a low stocking density, cannibalism is not a problem, because the hens have enough room to escape from any aggressors.

Consumer views appear to have been ignored by the AECL. It seems to us that to protect consumers, there is now a real need for a dual definition. Leave the term 'free range' for traditional low density egg farming such as practised by members of the Free Range Farmers Association and introduce a term like 'Intensive Free Range' 'Factory Free Range' or 'Cage Free' for the major players who don't meet the same standards. Currently the only way consumers in Victoria can be sure they are buying real free range eggs is to only buy from a FRFA accredited farm.

The Egg Corp Assured program currently has 19 accredited farms in Victoria. There is a total of 140 throughout Australia out of an estimated 500 – 600 commercial egg farms and many thousands of backyard operators who sell their eggs illegally.

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