One of Western Australia’s largest egg producers, Snowdale Holdings Pty Ltd, has been fined $750,000 for false or misleading representations that its eggs were “free range”.
The company sells eggs under a number of brands, including Eggs by Ellah, Swan Valley Free Range and Wanneroo Free Range. Yesterday in the Federal Court, following action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the company was handed the largest fine in several cases in recent years involving “free range” claims.
The penalty comes just six months after state and federal ministers finally agreed on a national definition for “free range” eggs under the Australian Consumer Law, although many advocates still believe the maximum stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare is too high.
The decision has taken 14 months since the Court found last year that between April 2011 and December 2013, most of the hens from the Snowdale sheds did not move around on an open range because the farming conditions significantly inhibited them birds from doing so.
Central to the ACCC’s case is the issue of how easy it is for the chickens to access the outdoors.
In the 2016 judgment, Justice Siopis said: “There is no suggestion in the images and get up used on any of the Snowdale egg carton labels that the laying hens are, in fact, housed in steel industrial style sheds about 100m long and that the hens in those sheds would have to compete with another 12,000 or 17,000 other hens, as the case may be, before the hens could even exit the shed to enter an open range.”
Previous cases over similar claims brought by the ACCC saw two companies, trading together as Free Range Egg Farms, fined $300,000 last year, while Darling Downs Fresh Eggs was fined $250,000 in 2015 and NSW egg producer Pirovic was fined $300,000 in 2014.
Today’s decision means $1.6 million in fines have been handed out to the egg industry in the last three years.
ACCC Commissioner Mick Keogh said the $750,000 penalty “reflects the seriousness of Snowdale’s conduct and the importance of egg producers being truthful about marketing claims they make”.
Consumer lobby group Choice, which has campaigned on the issue, said the Court’s latest decision showed it was still difficult for consumers to have confidence in free range labeling.
“Despite the introduction of a national standard for free range earlier this year, it’s still very likely consumers are paying a premium for eggs that don’t meet their expectations,z” Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey said.
“Packing hens into sheds or creating situations where most hens can’t realistically go outside is a long way from consumers’ expectations when they think of free range.”
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