Draft code avoids controversial term
The egg industry is split on the definition of ‘‘free-range’’. An expert says it is a marketing, not a welfare term. Daniel Adams reports
Large-scale egg producers running flocks more than five times the size of small farmers’ flocks believe consumers can decide whether their free- range credentials are up to scratch.
Free- range egg company FRENZ director Rob Darby said as much as two-thirds of eggs sold as free-range were from largescale producers due to inadequacies in the welfare code.
A drawn-out review of the code has centred on cage production and Mr Darby said the draft rules would let big producers continue to profit from the free-range label. But major producers running flocks of up to 8000 birds said the standards FRENZ wanted were not viable and would drive freerange farmers to the wall.
Egg Producers Federation executive director Michael Brooks said the industry-funded feder- ation had endorsed the proposed 2500- hens- a- hectare stocking densities. He said the industry was split over the definition of free-range but the new code would be the only independent definition driven solely by hen welfare imperatives, finally giving egg farmers and consumers certainty around free-range labelling.
Mr Brooks said the federation had heard allegations that freerange labelling was misused.
‘‘Tell us the name of the producer and we’ll go to the Commerce Commission on it,’’ Mr Brooks said.
‘‘While some smaller free-range farmers disagreed with the birdsto-hectare number others saw it as positive . . . a status not given under the current code,’’ he said.
Primary Industries Minister David Carter is expected to issue the new code mid-year.
Dr John Hellstrom, chairman of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, which has spent two years drafting minimum standards said, defining the term free-range was not its job and he was satisfied the rules protected laying hens’ welfare.
‘‘As far as free-range is concerned, the main points of contention were hen stocking densities, and protection of the term,’’ Dr Hellstrom said. ‘‘We’re trying to develop welfare standards. We’re not an organisation to protect marketing terms, that is outside the legislation’s brief and our terms of reference. We’ve decided not refer to free-range at all in the draft code but instead talk about standards for birds farmed outdoors. That way we avoid any confusion. It’s a marketing term, it’s not a welfare term.’’
Woodland brand spokesman Hamish Sutherland said commercial realities had to be weighed to let the industry meet rising demand for free-range eggs.
‘‘If the stocking densities get too low you would end up having the entire South Island covered in chooks. There has to be some commercial balance,’’ he said.
Dr Hellstrom said stocking densities varied in New Zealand and overseas, and the draft code matched European standards.
‘‘Australia, for example, is looking at more than 10,000 birds a hectare, which is hardly freerange,’’ Dr Hellstrom said.
Mr Darby wanted densities of 1000 hens a hectare entrenched in the new code.
‘‘They are suggesting in that code something more than three times that. That is not sustainable and will cause huge problems. But it will satisfy the big guys because they want 30,000 birds in a shed and don’t want to be restricted,’’ he said.
Mr Brooks said large shed sizes allowed automated egg collection, which significantly reduced labour costs, ensuring supply certainty for major supermarkets.
FREE RANGE: Egg industry defines free range.