Ruffling the free-range feathers

Photos by Monique Smith.
Photo: ODT files
Claims of another free-range egg swindle in New Zealand only illustrate how much we rely on the honesty and integrity of others when buying specialty products.

Free-range, fat-free, hand-made etc. These are labels designed to ensure consumers can make an informed choice. Given they are usually expected to pay extra for that privilege, consumers have a right to demand producers and suppliers play by the rules.

Last week's allegations egg company Palace Poultry was selling caged-hen eggs as free-range eggs has certainly thrown a fox into the chook house.

It appears Palace Poultry has been buying eggs from caged-hen suppliers and then repackaging and marketing them as free-range eggs. The Serious Fraud Office is investigating claims Palace Poultry sold millions of caged-hen eggs as free-range. Palace Poultry has denied the claims.

Countdown believed it had been buying free-range eggs from the company and the Ministry for Primary Industry's registered risk management programme indicated Palace Poultry met the criteria of its risk management programme as a free-range egg supplier.

Dunedin was also dragged into the controversy. Locally-owned free-range brand Woodland admitted it also bought small quantities of Palace Poultry eggs, but it has since stopped dealing with the company.

This saga raises serious questions about scrutiny of egg suppliers. If the free-range label is to have integrity then suppliers need to fight to ensure the industry is properly policed. Consumer New Zealand said more inspections were needed, either by retailers that sold eggs, or the Ministry for Primary Industries should carry out certification when it checked on farms.

Free-range animal products are big business, and there has been at least one case of cashing in on misrepresentation.

In 2014, egg farmer John Garnett was convicted of passing off 2.47 million caged eggs as free-range. Garnett's main motive was financial with his company estimated to have gained a $376,000 pecuniary advantage over 20 months.

Following the latest incident, Egg Producers Federation executive director Michael Brooks called for the industry to consider egg stamping on farms to distinguish between caged and free-range eggs.

The fact someone was, apparently, able to sell millions of eggs illegally shows the current regulations are not adequate.

The guidelines over what constitutes a free-range egg are strict.

The welfare code for free-range hens dictates a stock density of 2500 hens per hectare and management must ensure hens go outside regularly. The code recommends as ``best practice'' that the range area should provide trees, shrubs or other shelter to encourage the birds to leave the barn.

Farms are audited by the Ministry for Primary Industries to check they are meeting food safety standards. But the ministry's role does not extend to checking free-range label claims.

According to the Egg Producers Federation, free-range eggs make up around 14% of commercially produced eggs bought in New Zealand. Consumption of free-range eggs has increased in recent years at a rate of about 1% a year.

That growth is on the back of people believing they are buying eggs from hens which have had a superior quality of life to caged hens. They eat their omelettes satisfied hens have been able to wander around fields, scratch for bugs, have a dust bath and return to nest when they are ready to lay.

Consumers of free-range eggs have made a commitment to the industry by buying their product. The industry needs to repay that faith by properly policing its own.


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