10 June 2015
Transcript - #2015066, 2015

Interview with Richard Glover, Drive 702 ABC Sydney

SUBJECTS: Free range eggs

RICHARD GLOVER:

I wonder if you pay extra to buy free range eggs, congratulating yourself that you're doing the right thing. If so, a CHOICE survey out today might give you a sinking feeling. I just looked up the brand I always buy. There was a great photo of happy chooks on box so you'll understand why I always choose it. But according to CHOICE, this particular brand crams in 10,000 hens on each hectare.

That compares to stocking densities of 2,000 or even 1,000 elsewhere. And I feel I must say that I've been a little bit ripped off - every week, for about the last five years, ever since I started buying that brand, with the happy chooks. How though are consumers to know whether free range is real free range? CHOICE wants an enforceable national standard that would replace the current patchwork of voluntary codes. It seems to me that the current system is unfair on consumers who may be paying extra because they think they're getting something extra. But it's also unfair on producers who are doing the right thing and are competing against people who are selling what seems to be the same product, but with much lower production costs.

Bruce Billson is the Federal Minister for Small Business. Bruce, good afternoon. Bruce, you're looking at exactly this issue aren't you?

BRUCE BILLSON:

Yes, we are.

We've got a meeting on Friday that I'm chairing with all the State and Territory Consumer Affairs Ministers. It is basically saying what can we do with- to deal with the concerns that you've raised Richard, and frankly I had a look at that listing as well and thought the eggs that I was buying had other characteristics than the one the packaging was communicating to me.

RICHARD GLOVER:

You had the same sinking feeling as I did?

BRUCE BILLSON:

Yeah I did. I've been explaining to my kids as we go shopping that I will buy the free range ones, and you sort of explained what that is about.

Now we didn't quite get to the point where there looked like a landscape from Midsomer Murders, where the hens could wander off and have a little nibble on a reed on the side of a lagoon or something. But the point being that consumers think they're buying something where the hen's wandering around ranging freely, only to find that may not necessarily be the case.

And the producers are looking for some clarity about what they need to do to make sure they can make certain claims, and in certain aspects, claim a premium on the price that consumers pay.

RICHARD GLOVER:

Well, that's right. I mean, you're Minister for Small Business and as I say it's unfair on consumers. But it's also really unfair for egg producers who are trying to do the right thing?

BRUCE BILLSON:

That is what we have got to navigate on Friday, Richard.

There are a few moving parts to all of this. There is a model code that aims to make sure animal welfare considerations are dealt with, and that has guided some egg producers on the labelling they've used to communicate how the hens are being cared for.

Then there is the provision of the consumer law that says do not make false and misleading representations -and that is what has really brought this to a head after a number of years.

I suppose CHOICE and others looking for greater clarity can point to some court cases where the ACCC have taken egg producers to court, found that they've been guilty of false and misleading representations about their eggs. And then they have come back saying well hang on, we thought we were doing all that was required of us. It means free range hens actually need to range freely and that is the kind of conversation that we are trying to navigate a pathway through.

RICHARD GLOVER:

Yeah and look it is difficult, because it's definitional isn't it? 10,000 hectares- the egg corporation I think at one stage was saying 20,000 hectares was fair enough. Well they got argued down on that but still you've got a lot of producers in the market, in the fact the bulk of them, are at 10,000 hectares.

BRUCE BILLSON:

Yeah I saw that, there's a vast bulk of them and there are a few of them that are taking an approach which seems to better align with the way they market and advertise their eggs. I suppose one way of looking at is if you had 10,000 hens in a hectare, that is about one square metre each. You might think that doesn't too bad, but if you imagine you are at a Bon Jovi concert and all of those individuals are pressed up against the stage - or in the case of hens - all jammed in a corner where the food and the water is, you get quite a different picture.

RICHARD GLOVER:

That's right, that some of the hectare's not going to be used. And certainly that's not the photo on the box is it? I mean, the photo on the box does not suggest that sort of density.

BRUCE BILLSON:

And that's exactly why there's been court action. So there are enforceable mechanisms where people are making claims that frankly are deceiving consumers. And that's where the ACCC has taken action.

Where the next step needs to go though is for egg producers who are saying well if we can't rely upon these codes, we can't rely upon these model standards of animal welfare to make claims, what can we be provided with that gives us as egg producers that confidence that we can say things that won't have us run foul - excuse the pun - of the consumer law in terms of false and misleading representation?

And trying to bring those two bits of work together is really what Friday is about.

RICHARD GLOVER:

Okay. Now I know there's about five different models being suggested from an industry-run thing to national-mandated standards; what's wrong with national-mandated- I know that it will be difficult in the detail, you'd have to- some people were saying 10,000's fine, other people will be saying 1000's fine, you'd have to agree on that, you'd have to agree on the definition of access to outside and all that. I'm not saying it would be easy. But that's the obvious solution, isn't it? Just to set down a standard which you've got to match? We do it with plastics, and we do it with motorcars, and we do it with exhaust systems et cetera.

BRUCE BILLSON:

My instincts are that is probably right, but the discussion will be what kind of standard and what legislative and enforcement instruments are best used to bring that standard into effect?

So if it's about say a consumer information standard, that would tend to focus on what you can say to a consumer in communicating what it is you've done to produce your eggs. It may not go deeply into animal welfare considerations, and it may not provide the clarity that the producers need to make sure they're doing the right thing and then are saying the right thing to consumers.

It might require a different definition, Richard. I mean even free range, the courts have found, basically says the hens need to be able to go outside on most days, and do so. If the hens choose to exercise their free will and stay in the barn, then that represents a problem -so maybe the term needs to be free to roam or something like that, that actually says look we've got these outdoor areas, we cannot be certain they are going outside, and therefore we can't make the claim that they're free range and maybe we can come up with some reasonable categorisation that gives the producers confidence, but above all builds confidence in the consumers - that they know what they're buying, they can understand the representations being made to them about the way those eggs are being produced, and then they can make a decision about their purchasing dollar and where best to place it.

RICHARD GLOVER:

Yeah, and a decision that's easy to make. I mean the other part of this thing, as we all know, is that everyone's busy, you're doing the supermarket shopping on Saturday morning before you race off to cello practice or soccer or whatever it is in your family, you don't want to necessarily sit online and research all these different brands of eggs. You want- this is one case where you do want nanny state, or the government, or the RSPCA, or somebody, to say this one's okay, it will cost you two bucks extra, but it's okay.

BRUCE BILLSON:

And then that is where the conversations  is on Friday. What is readily understandable and accessible information for consumers that recognise people have busy lives, they can front up to a wall of eggs with different claims being made and they are confident about what it is they are buying, and what those representations are that are being made on the packaging. Not just the words that have been used, but if people are rolling out images of Midsomer Murder's county fair where there is all sorts of loveliness around them,  when you find that's far from what the conditions might be, getting those images right, the language right, and then the producers knowing what's required of them to attract a higher price for premium claims, that's the sort of work we're focusing in on Friday.

RICHARD GLOVER:

Okay. I mean, it does sound as if a lot of people are aboard this, I know New South Wales minister Victor Dominello seems to be on board the same idea. People though are also saying this is going to take a long time. I don't think that will impress people, if it takes years to sort this out.

BRUCE BILLSON:

I wouldn't hook my wagon to a particular timeframe right now, because it will depend very much on what is agreed. It is a matter of tweaking, if I could use that term, the model code that focuses on animal welfare and how egg farms should be run and designed, and what features are needed to make certain types of claims, and then make sure consumer related information is factored into it.

Well that is one pathway. If it comes down through an accreditation or a trademark claim that the industry itself puts in place, well that's a different pathway, and that way if people are claiming something meets certain accreditation standards and it doesn't, those producers can be pinged. And above all, we need to make sure whatever happens consumers know what it's about and it's not just an in-crowd conversation, but something that actually connects with and helps inform consumers.

RICHARD GLOVER:

Okay. Maybe we can talk again after Friday's meeting. Bruce, thank you very much.