Thursday, August 15, 2013

Egg labelling is a shambles in Australia

Egg labelling laws and accreditation processes are a shambles in Australia because there is no legally recognised national definition of the term 'free range'. The Queensland Government has relaxed its regulation limiting stocking densities to 1500 hens per hectare on free range farms to 10,000 per hectare.

The NSW Government seems set to reject a Truth in Labelling Bill which has passed the Upper House and the SA Government is introducing a 'voluntary' code for the industry in that State.

Egg substitution has been rife for years but probably first came to general notice in Victoria during 2007 with a high profile case when a company was fined for labelling eggs as organic when they were from conventional farms.

In 2012, a NSW barn egg farm was fined for packaging its eggs as free range and a South Australian egg seller was fined for putting cage eggs in free range cartons.

Also in 2012. An egg farm in WA was caught with a huge overstocking rate which breached its planning conditions. This farm was accredited by a national egg quality scheme but despite annual audits which required compliance with planning conditions the farm remained accredited. The accreditation was only withdrawn once the breaches became public and legal proceedings began.

In Victoria in 2012 inspection and audit processes revealed that a farm was packing and selling non-accredited eggs from dubious sources and that colouring additives were being used in poultry feed – breaching particular standards.

Labels can also be misleading, with pictures of hens frolicking on green pasture, which frequently don't resemble conditions on the farm.

A questionable 'organic' accreditation body also exists in Victoria which is not recognised by mainstream organic bodies and which does not have a credible inspection process – but claims that the products which its members sell are certified organic. AQIS, which registers organic certification bodies in Australia, is apparently only involved with export industries – so it has no jurisdiction over domestic 'organic' claims.

Accreditation means different things to different people. Consumers rightly expect it to convey a message of credibility about a particular product, but to many businesses it's simply a marketing tool designed to allow them to make claims which increase their profits.

Similarly, a logo can be a valuable asset if it is trusted by consumers. But it's value can be destroyed if it is shown to be meaningless. Any accreditation program is only as good as the willingness of the accreditation body to maintain its standards and defend its logo.

That is why it is so disappointing that standards are ignored by accreditation bodies. Even using things like egg yolk colourings should be disclosed to consumers. Everyone expects cage farms to use them to enhance yolk colour but it is neither needed nor necessary on a genuine free range farm with low stocking densities and plenty of green feed.

To maintain ethical standards and credibility, all certification bodies need to defend their standards and take action against suppliers who break the rules.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has asked many egg producers to justify the claims made on their packaging – claims such as 'free range'.

Hopefully this will start a 'clean-up' process.

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