Court test for free-range eggs

Amanda Banks Legal Affairs EditorThe West Australian
Court test for free-range eggs
Camera IconCourt test for free-range eggs Credit: The West Australian

One of WA's biggest egg producers misled by claiming its eggs were free range when some if its barns held up to 14 chickens a square metre, it was alleged in the Federal Court yesterday.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission lawyer Gail Archer said some barns at Snowdale Holdings held up to 18,000 chickens with only a few exits to outdoor ranges.

Snowdale is fighting an action that alleges its marketing of free-range eggs was misleading because it suggested most of its laying chickens could move freely on an open range most days.

In her opening address, Ms Archer said the marketing included images of birds in "grassy fields" with slogans such as "happy chickens, raised with love".

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She said the ACCC alleged a significant number of consumers would reasonably think "free range" meant something more than up to 18,000 hens in a barn with a couple of exits.

She said they would reasonably think free range meant most of the hens would go outside on an ordinary day, which did not involve extreme weather, predators or the need for the hens to be confined for medical reasons.

Ms Archer said at one time, there were as few as five open doors for the chickens to exit Snowdale's barns at Carabooda and in the Swan Valley.

The number of chickens housed was in dispute but Ms Archer said at best there were 444 chickens for each metre of the exits - or popholes - in the one "free range" barn at the Swan Valley farm. There were 1400 to 2000 hens for each metre of exit in four barns at Carabooda.

Using cardboard templates cut to size to demonstrate, Ms Archer said the hens at Carabooda each had an interior area of between 27cm by 27cm and 33.5cm by 33.5cm. At Swan Valley, the interior allowed each bird between 26.5cm by 26.5cm and 33.5cm by 33.5cm or between nine and 14 birds a square metre.

The outdoor range at Swan Valley, which was also in dispute, gave each hen between 28cm by 28cm and 78.5cm by 78.5cm.

Ms Archer said the allegations related to the conditions for the chickens between April 2011 and December 2013. The Swan Valley site closed in September 2013.

She said changes introduced in 2013 increased the number of "popholes" in the barns to 10 and then up to 34.

The defence did not make an opening statement yesterday.

The case is scheduled to run for three weeks.

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