The ACCC questioned whether the trade mark was misleading.
It 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.
Many free-range farmers are cheering the ACCC’s announcement that it plans "not to approve" the trade mark because it considers the accreditation does not fit consumer expectations of free-range farming.
The producers had actively rallied opposition to the trade mark from animal welfare bodies such as the RSPCA and consumer group Choice, plus more extremist and vegetarian lobbyists including Voiceless and Animals Australia.
The new quality assurance certification issue could become a fiery topic at this month’s annual general meeting of the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL), which had told egg producers the trade mark should be rolling out by now.
Some bigger scale egg prodncers had been preparing their farms to sign up for accreditation which would allow up to 20,000 birds a hectare to roam in and around their housing area.
Free-range purists insist true accreditation should only allow about 1500 birds/ha and any heavier stocking density was not good animal husbandry.
They also feared the economic viability of smaller capacity farms would be eroded as more large scale cage egg producers switched to large scale free-range production.
Supermarket giant Coles has intensified retail pressure on the egg industry by declaring it will only sell free-range eggs under its house brand label from January, while also discounting its egg prices.
The Egg Corporation still hopes to salvage the trade mark, saying it will work with the ACCC to ensure certification is approved "for the benefit of consumers, industry and hen welfare’~ "We’re confident there is overwhelming evidence in favour of the new assessment’ said corporation managing director, James Kellaway.
He said the ACCC’s concerns related to only a few of AECL’s audit points and the industry could allay these concerns given the evidence supporting those specific points.
AECL went throngh a three year development process to produce the new program which includes 170 andit points for best practice production on farms.
But the ACCC claimed the proposed standards not only appeared misleading but also failed to meet other requirements in the Trade Marks Act.
"The strong public interest in this matter shows that consumers want clear and accurate labelling of eggs and the ACCC considers the Egg Corporation’s certification trade mark proposal may be misleading’ said ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court.
The proposed rules would allow eggs to be certified as free-range where outdoor stocking densities "are very significantly higher than existing standards and the flock management practice of beak trimming could also be routinely practised by certified farms’ she said.
The ACCC believed these practices and standards "do not accord with consumer expectations about the free-range egg production’~ Vocal Victorian free-range egg campaigner Phil Westwood described the ACCC’s initial assessment as "a great win for family farms and the free-range industry".
He said standards proposed by AECL were designed to deceive consumers and boost the profits of corporate egg businesses, while decimating family farms across the country.