A DARLING Downs egg producer has been fined a quarter of a million dollars for labelling a product as "free range" when the hens had in fact been confined to their pens.
The Federal Court has declared that RL Adams Pty Ltd, which trading as Darling Downs Fresh Eggs, engaged in misleading conduct and made misleading representations in its labelling and promotion of eggs as 'free range', in proceedings brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Darling Downs Fresh Eggs admitted, that from 31 December 2013 to 6 October 2014, Darling Downs Fresh Eggs supplied eggs marketed and labelled as 'free range' when in fact the laying hens had been continuously confined to barns and had never had access to the outdoors.
A spokesman for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said the Court found that by labelling and promoting eggs as 'free range', Darling Downs Fresh Eggs represented to consumers that the eggs were produced by hens which were able to move about freely on an open range each day, and that most of the hens did in fact do so on most days.
"In fact, as Darling Downs Fresh Eggs admitted, the doors to its barns were kept shut at all times so that none of the laying hens were able to access or use the outdoor range."
"The issue of free range is very important to many consumers and the Australian Consumer Law requires egg producers to make truthful, and not misleading, claims," ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.
"It's clearly misleading to claim your eggs are free range when the hens that laid the eggs didn't roam freely outdoors.
"People are willing to pay a premium for free range eggs which they believe meet ethical or welfare standards. Businesses should not be benefitting financially from misleading claims about farming practices," Mr Sims said.
The court also ordered that Darling Downs Fresh Eggs implement a compliance program and publish corrective notices in major metropolitan newspapers and on its website, and contribute to the ACCC's costs.
In his judgment, Justice Edelman commented that RL Adams' near-complete cooperation with the ACCC investigation, and its admission of responsibility, were significant mitigating factors in determining the appropriate level of penalty.
A spokesman for R.L. Adams Pty Ltd said the company was calling for a national standard for the egg industry that covered both the Australian Consumer Law and animal welfare standards.
"During a period across 2013/14, R.L. Adams Pty Ltd was so focused on biosecurity issues during a national Avian Influenza (bird) flu outbreak they inadvertently broke a consumer code.
"We are now calling for greater alignment between animal welfare standards and consumer law standards after being fined by the ACCC."
R.L. Adams Pty Ltd Executive Geoff Sondergeld said animal welfare was the number one focus for the company's egg business.
Mr Sondergeld said during that period there were significant outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza and a large number of infectious Laryngotracheitis outbreaks across the country, including the Darling Downs area.
"In effect we are guilty of doing the right thing," he said.
"We were so focused on the biosecurity issue that we didn't change our packaging from free range to barn or caged.
"We are concerned other egg producers could be taken to court inadvertently unless we have a national code covering all issues of the production of eggs that includes both consumer and hen welfare.
"Our company is a very small free--‐range producer in the context of the overall egg industry.
"We have been fully transparent with the ACCC cooperating with them throughout the whole investigation.
"Unfortunately the ACCC stuck to the letter of the consumer law and dismissed all other industry guidelines so we feel we have been made an example of.
"During this period the Australia egg industry culled half a million hens as a result of Avian Influenza.
"It is highly pathogenic and easily spread by vehicles, people and among birds particularly by water fowl (such as ducks) who might come in contact with the free range ranging areas."
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