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The truth about eggs, hens and pens

The truth about eggs, hens and pens

A new bill tells us exactly what should come first: consumer awareness about eggs. Ruth Hatten, legal counsel at Voiceless, writes.

A new bill tells us exactly what should come first: consumer awareness about eggs. Ruth Hatten, legal counsel at Voiceless, writes. 


In a recent significant move, the NSW Greens Truth in Labelling (Free-range Eggs) Bill 2011 (Bill) passed NSW’s Upper House with support from the Greens, Labor and the Shooters and Fishers party.  The Bill sets a legal definition for free range eggs; something that has only been accomplished in Tasmania and the ACT.


A legal definition for free range eggs is long overdue.  Consumers looking to purchase eggs are bombarded with advertising claims that eggs are ‘free range’, ‘barn laid’, ‘cage’, ‘farm fresh’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘organic’, ‘certified organic’ or ‘grain fed’; claims that are often accompanied with images of happy hens roaming lush green fields.  Mostly these claims are marketing ploys to persuade consumers that eggs are produced in animal friendly conditions, when in the majority of cases, they are not.


Free range eggs, if legitimately free range, will generally mean that they have been produced in a system whereby hens have a minimum 8 hours access to the outdoors; shelter from adverse weather; protection from predators; palatable vegetation; stocking density is adequately restricted, and the use of growth promoters and mutilations such as beak or toe trimming are prohibited.  


Unfortunately the label ‘free range’ does not necessarily mean free range and with no legal definition of ‘free range’, outside of Tasmania and the ACT, it doesn’t need to.  


If eggs are not legitimately free range, then they are produced in a system whereby hens are confined in crowded, poorly ventilated and artificially lit sheds or cages, unable to express natural behaviours such as perching and nesting, their beaks are trimmed with a hot blade or infrared heat, their bones become weak and brittle from lack of exercise and they die prematurely, sometimes unnoticed and left to rot.


Without a legal definition of ‘free range’, egg producers are able to deceive consumers into believing that, for example, a cage egg or a grain fed egg is a free range egg.  This is not a furphy.  The NSW Food Authority admitted in its 2006-07 annual report that eggs from caged hens are being sold to consumers as free range.


According to a consumer study commissioned by Voiceless this year, 90 per cent of respondents believe that food should be labelled by its method of production.  In a similar vein, the Australian division of Humane Society International commissioned a consumer study in 2009 which found that 98 per cent of respondents believe that full and adequate labelling is every consumer’s right, yet only 6 per cent thought that current labels gave them enough information to allow them to make informed decisions.


In a bid to protect legitimate free range farmers, hens and consumers, the NSW Greens introduced the Bill which, amongst other things, required a stocking density of 750 birds per hectare and prohibited forced moulting (the practice of withholding food to increase egg production), toe trimming and beak trimming.

  

The Bill, as amended by the Labor party and accepted by NSW’s Upper House on 21 October 2011, has the effect of making the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry 4th edition (Poultry Code), as it concerns free range and barn eggs, enforceable in NSW.  While the Poultry Code is far from perfect in terms of animal protection, the enforceability of the Code is a better alternative to the current circumstances, that is, having no enforceable standards or having standards that fall far short of true animal protection (such as the Draft Egg Standards discussed below).  


If the Bill is passed, it will mean a maximum stocking density for free range hens will be set at 1500 birds per hectare and that beak trimming will be allowed in restricted circumstances.  It is this version of the Bill that will be introduced to the Lower House on a date to be determined.


Various objections were made to the Bill when it was debated in the Upper House.  It is worthwhile considering these, as it is likely that some of these objections will be repeated in the Lower House.  These include: NSW producers will be disadvantaged, producers who exceed the maximum stocking density will be prohibited from labelling their eggs as ‘free range’, producers who don’t satisfy the free range requirements will have to accept lower cage egg prices for their eggs, that the industry should self-regulate, legislation already exists that protects consumers from misleading or false advertising and that egg labelling must be a national not a State approach.


To each of these objections is a valid response.  


Legitimate free range farmers are currently disadvantaged due to the lack of regulation in this area and they will be the ones who will continue to suffer.  As Greens NSW MP John Kaye stated in the second reading, ‘if jobs are lost in New South Wales it will be because we do not have a legislated definition and free-range eggs will disappear from the market because the free-range egg producers cannot compete with the industrial farmers who are killing them off’.  


Producers should be prohibited from labelling their eggs as free range when they don’t comply with free range egg standards.  The standards to be enforced via the Bill are those currently contained in the Poultry Code, which are heralded as the minimum standards for the egg production industry.  It is unconscionable for producers to label their eggs as free range when they don’t even meet industry minimum standards.


Intensive egg producers should accept lower prices for their eggs compared to free range egg prices.  It is morally wrong for these producers to receive higher prices for a product that is not an ethical one and therefore not worthy of a higher price.  Further, they should not be rewarded for deceiving consumers.


Self-regulation has failed.  A prime example of this is the Draft Egg Standards that have recently been produced by the Australian Egg Corporation, opposed by legitimate free range farmers, which attempt to define ‘free range’ by allowing a maximum stocking density of 20,000 hens per hectare, allowing for hens to be locked up until five weeks after they start laying (which will likely have the effect of conditioning hens to a life indoors and therefore a reluctance to venture outside) and allowing beak trimming.  


Legislation does exist to prohibit false or misleading advertising, however, without a legal definition of free range, it is difficult to prosecute offenders.


A national approach is needed and is the desired outcome, but a national approach will take time.  Time is a luxury.  Protection is needed for hens, free range farmers and consumers now.  The NSW Greens ought to be supported for taking a stand on this hotly debated issue.  Other jurisdictions are set to follow with word on the street being that other States are looking to include an egg labelling policy in their platforms for the next election.


A legal definition of free range eggs is vital. This legislation is vital.  While not the level of protection initially intended by the Greens, it will be an improvement on the current situation – consumers will know whether the eggs they purchase are legitimately free range, legitimate free range farmers will be protected and living conditions for hens will improve.  I call upon all readers from NSW to contact local MPs and ask that they support the Bill.

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The truth about eggs, hens and pens
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