One of Australia’s largest egg producers has been handed a AUS$750,000 (US$593,897) fine and ordered to pay AUS$300,000 (US$237,608) in costs after being found guilty of making false or misleading representations that the eggs it sold were free range.
The legal action was taken by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) against Snowdale Holdings in Western Australia. It followed a complaint brought by animal welfare group Humane Society International over conditions on select poultry farms between April 2011 and December 2013.
The case surrounded Snowdale’s management at sites in Carabooda and in Perth’s Swan Valley, where the company produced branded eggs including Eggs by Ellah.
The company used advertising that included claims its eggs were “free range” and images of chickens in “grassy fields”.
But the court found that conditions on farms prevented most birds from accessing outside range area regularly. It considered overall stocking density in sheds too high, and the number of pop holes available inhibitive to ranging.
It also made an order preventing Snowdale from using the words ’free range’ in connection with its eggs, unless produced by hens able to “go outside on ordinary days, and most of which actually go outside on most days”.
Snowdale is a major supplier to Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths. It has been ordered to undergo a consumer compliance law programme and publish a corrective notice.
Humane Society International said the fine was the largest in Australian history for a breach of its kind. Director Verna Simpson said: “Consumers can be thankful that justice has been served and Snowdale Holdings have been held to account for their deception.”
In a statement, ACCC commissioner Mick Keogh said the penalty reflected the seriousness of Snowdale’s conduct and the importance of egg producers being truthful about marketing claims.
“Consumers pay a higher price for free-range eggs, so when a claim is made, it’s important that consumers are purchasing eggs laid by chickens in free range conditions.
“Farmers who have invested in changes to their farming practices so they can make valid credence claims such as free range also need protection from others making false credence claims.”
Under national standards introduced last year, chickens must have “meaningful and regular” access to outdoors at a stocking density of 10,000 hens/hectare in order to gain free-range status.
This compares to the UK, where a minimum of 2,500 birds/ha is the legal limit.