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Watchdog might smash new standard for Australian eggs

By RJ Whitehead , 06-Nov-2012

A new quality standard that promises to bring greater consistency to the way egg producers meet farm standards has created a row between the egg industry and Australia’s business watchdog.

The Australian Egg Corporation (AEC) had devised a framework over three years of development that sought to audit egg producers across 171 inspection points, covering issues from hen health, feed safety, farm quarantine and biosecurity, environmental stewardship and egg labelling. Suppliers who meet the criteria will be entitled to carry an “Egg Standard Australia” quality mark on its products.

The points set out the requirements for best practice in the production of eggs at farm level,” said James Kellaway, managing director of the AEC. “The new QA will provide consumers with the confidence to choose eggs from production systems according to their budget and preference.”

However, the Australian Competition and Consumers Commission is not impressed, based on its initial assessment of the AEC’s application for a certification trade mark related to a nationwide quality assurance programme.

In a public notice, the ACCC is threatening not to give approval because it considers “the AEC’s proposed standards may mislead consumers about the nature of eggs described as ‘free-range’. The proposed standards also do not meet other legislative requirements in the Trade Marks Act”.

Greens weigh in

Pressure group Humane Choice had earlier this year launched a campaign to question the standard in response by a call by the ACCC for public submissions on the case. Referring to the AEC’s free-range standard, the animal-welfare lobby claimed that chickens will only be given the same space outdoors on the range as they would be given inside the shed. 

This could mean stocking densities of six turkeys per square-metre or up to 140,000 birds per hectare,” Humane Choice wrote in its campaign document. “The arrogance of AEC to think they can hijack a term that true free-range farmers have spent their lifetimes building should be exposed.”

The ACCC’s initial assessment was informed by over 1,700 submissions from consumers, egg producers, industry associations and consumer and animal welfare organisations. The focus of submissions was on provisions involving the production of free-range eggs under the rules.

The strong public interest in this matter shows that consumers want clear and accurate labelling of eggs, and the ACCC considers that the Australian Egg Corporation’s Certification Trade Mark proposal may be misleading,” said ACCC commissioner Sarah Court.

She went on say that the ACCC considers the the AECs practices and standards are “not in accord with consumer expectations about the free range production of eggs”.

Resolution might be possible

The AEC’s Kellaway, however, seemed to think the two bodies could reach an accord: “While today’s decision is only an initial assessment, we are confident that there is overwhelming evidence in favour of the new standards. 

We will continue to work with the ACCC to ensure the trade mark certification is achieved for the benefit of consumers, industry and hen welfare.” 

A final decision will be made in the coming months.

Editor's note: Are you happy with AEC's new standard or do you believe that it must adopt a new definition of "free-range" before it can be implemented? Let us know your views in the comments below.

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