The lawsuit was launched by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which claimed that Baiada was deceiving customers by claiming that its Steggles chickens were free to roam, when in fact they were packed tightly into barns and had a living space no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper.
Finding in favour of the ACCC, Justice Tracey said he had toured Baiada’s chicken barns and found that stocking densities varied depending on the ages of the birds, but some could not move more than a metre without having their movement constricted.
The judge also ruled that the Australian Chicken Meat Federation had misled consumers by claiming that some Australian birds were “free to roam” in large barns.
Penalty submissions will be heard by Justice Tracey at a later date, but local reports suggest the companies could face fines of AUS$1.1m.
The Australian Greens said the case indicated a need for the government to fast-track its review of the Poultry National Model Code of Practice.
“Successive Agriculture Ministers have dragged their feet for seven years on the review of the Poultry Model Code of Practice,” said Greens animal welfare spokesperson Senator Lee Rhiannon.
“This Federal Court decision shows why shoppers cannot trust whether the meat they buy comes from chickens living in miserable conditions or chickens kept as humanely as possible.
“Terms like ‘free to roam’ give the impression that chickens spend their time happily scratching outdoors in the sunshine, but the Federal Court found that Baiada’s chickens were squashed in sheds and unable to move more than a metre at best.”
She added that labels such as ‘cage-free’ or ‘raised in barns’ could also be misleading to consumers.
“It is time the Agriculture Minister worked with state governments to implement mandatory, nationally consistent truth-in-labelling laws to restore consumer confidence and protect animal welfare”, she said.