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Monday, 9 November 2015
Page: 12587

Ms SCOTT (Lindsay) (18:58): The Lindsay electorate is home to one of the largest independent egg producers in Australia: Pirovic Family Farms. The Pirovic family produces in the vicinity of 600,000 eggs each and every day and, in the process of that, they employ some 130 people. They are a modern farm and, like most egg operations around Australia, they are adapting to the challenge of producing large-scale free range eggs. While it might seem to be a simple case of opening the cage door, it is in fact a lot more complicated.

The first consideration is: how do you protect the birds from disease, such as Newcastle disease, avian or bird flu? A lot of people think that it is just a matter of what 'free range' is. In fact, a lot of people do not realise there are many inconsistent definitions. The average man on the street might think that 'free range' is birds that are uncaged. But that still poses a question: should farmers be keeping hens at 15 birds per square metre—the standard—or should that number be as low as seven or eight, as the 'free range' definition applies?

While this is still going on, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is also trying to keep the industry accountable with its proposed common law standard that to be free range most hens can and should go outside on most ordinary days. This poses the question: how many chickens by proportion is 'most' and what defines an ordinary day? The industry is calling out for the ACCC to be more actively involved and to behave in a more collaborative manner, to ensure that there is a level playing field for all and consistent information for consumers, and also to protect the farmers through a basic standard—not to mention a very basic form of protein and an essential food group.

The question is: are we working with the right standard? Legally, this means that at any time 51 per cent of hens are outside the sheds. But how do you monitor this? The reality is that we are not dealing with machines. It is not a simple case of flicking a switch and half the birds are automatically outside. If the weather is too hot or too cold the hens, like you or I, will gravitate to the sheds. If you are running a farm with 100,000 birds, how do you count that you have 51,000 birds outside at any particular time? For some, these might seem silly questions, but the reality is that egg operators are being asked to comply with these guidelines.

With that in mind, egg producers have been working with New South Wales farmers to find a more workable definition. They are proposing a definition that says, firstly, that hens have unrestricted access to a range during daylight hours; secondly, that laying hens in free range systems are confined within a ventilated hen house; and, thirdly, that hens have access to and are free to roam and forage on an outdoor range area during daylight hours in a managed environment.

In Senate estimates two weeks ago, ACCC chair Rod Sims said that the commission would only be prosecuting the extreme elements of the industry. I therefore urge the commission to formalise the evidence given to the Senate estimates by codifying a workable free range definition. The industry believes that if these standards are applied, the ACCC will be able to enforce a workable definition for all players. Perhaps that should be a starting point for a serious discussion on what constitutes 'free range'.