Monday, March 2, 2015

The West Australian Newspaper - January 2015

image courtesy Katie Joy's Free-range Eggs

 Paying the Price for Free-Range

The world of free-range can be a fickle place. Animal-loving customers yearn to embrace it, yet their definition of what constitutes ‘free-range’ is often vastly different to the stance taken by politicians, producers and supermarkets. Take eggs, for example. National free-range egg laws currently don’t exist in Australia.  In Western Australia, Greens MP Lynne MacLaren is fighting to re-introduce her Free-Range Labelling Bill (originally introduced in 2013) to the Senate this year. Over east, the NSW Fair Trading Minister, Matthew Mason-Cox, is due to have a draft national standard for free-range considered, apparently at the next Minister’s forum in April. The slow wheels of bureaucracy and the cut and thrust of profit margins can often get in the way of what the customer wants, and what is best for the animal.

Most people who buy free-range eggs pay a premium, envisaging happy hens pecking their way across lush green fields. After all, that’s what it shows on the packaging, right?  In reality, when it comes to free-range eggs (particularly those sold by supermarket chains), it is a veritable minefield for the consumer. Coles has a recommendation for their free-range eggs of 10,000 hens per hectare – anything smaller, they say, is commercially unviable.  The recommendation by the CSIRO and animal welfare groups for stocking densities is 1,500 birds per hectare. Western Australia’s largest ‘free-range’ egg producer, Snowdale Holdings (which runs Swan Valley Egg Farm and Eggs by Ellah), is currently locked in a court battle with the ACCC amidst allegations of falsely labelling its eggs free-range. The case is due to be heard in the Federal Court this April.

All is not lost, however. There are plenty of dedicated, hardworking producers out there who are passionate about free-range, with Margaret River Free-range Eggs being one of them. Its feisty owner, Jan Harwood, is chairwoman of the Free-range Egg Association.

“In Australia, the Australian Egg Corporation Limited and larger supermarkets have said that the free-range standards we used to operate under aren’t sustainable anymore, and we can’t produce enough eggs for the growing free-range market. Well, you can, because they’re doing it overseas on the same standards,” says Jan.

“They are producing enough eggs because they’re doing it slowly and organically. If countries like England and Denmark, who have less space than us, can do it on 1,500 hens per hectare, then why can’t we? It’s all about price manipulation.

“So this is where it gets down to cheap food. If you want to produce a free-range egg at the same price as a caged egg, then something’s got to give. Happily, these days people are walking the talk, and are starting to understand that good food costs more money.” 

When it comes to local free-range chicken, it’s hard to go past Mt Barker. The company juggernaut, based in the Great Southern, has eight farms that are run by either Mt Barker Chicken or local farmers, with each farm containing several chicken coops that have a central point for eating and drinking. The number of birds vary, but according to Graham Laitt, the managing director of Mt Barker’s umbrella company, Milne Agrigroup, their newest farm at Fox River has around 20,000 birds at any one time. 

“Most of our farms are part of diverse family farming operations, so the area available to the MBC farms is not limited. The coops are up to two hundred metres apart, providing the largest free-range area of any farms in Western Australia.,” says Graham..

“The number of birds per farm varies widely. It very much depends on the layout and facilities on the farm, as well as the management available.”

According to Graham, once the hens are feathered (at around twenty-one days old), they leave the coops to range outside all day until they are brought in at night to protect them from foxes. The farms aren’t open to the public, but chicken webcams will soon be set up at their Fox River farm.

Happily, free-range pork is increasingly becoming the norm for many people. As with the egg industry, there is no one standard, but a general free-range guideline is that all pigs need to be outside from birth to death, with plenty of space to graze and forage. 

“There are a number of growers who call their pigs free-range but they are, in fact, free-range-bred,” says Annie Kavanagh from Spencers Brook Farm.  

“This means the sows are outside having their piglets, but when the piglets are a few weeks old, they are weaned and moved into eco shelters, where they spend the rest of their lives before slaughter at around five months old.”

According to Annie, there is currently no legislation which differentiates between free-range and free-range-bred, with the customer paying more for free-range without knowing whether it’s legit.

“There needs to be national labelling brought in with a standard for free-range. However any attempt to bring in a certification system will inevitably lead to the same kind of fierce debate currently being seen in the egg industry, where the larger players are pushing for higher stocking densities.”  


Free-range Eggs:

Cackleberries Demeter Biodynamic Free-range Eggs

Based in: east of Donnybrook

Available to buy from: Absolutely Organic; Organic on Charles; Manning Farmers Market (at Redtail Organic Meat stall); Peaches

Farm open to the public: Yes (by appointment only)

How many hens: 28 hens per hectare (rotated around paddock in mobile accommodation)

Katie Joy’s Free-range Eggs

Based in: Kojonup (towards Albany)

Available to buy from: For stockists, head to their Facebook page

Farm open to the public: In the pipeline

How many hens: 900 hens per hectare (pastures are rotated)

Laterite Ridge Free-range (also free-range pork)

Based in: York

Available to buy from: Perth City Farmers; York IGA; The Local Grocer (online)

Farm open to public: No

How many hens: under 500 hens per hectare

Manavi Eggs (new)

Based in: Watheroo (near Gingin)

Available to buy from: The Lettuce Shop; small home delivery service in northern suburbs, and in the Moora, Dalwallinu area

Farm open to the public: No

How many hens: 125 hens per hectare (rotated around paddock in mobile accommodation)

Margaret River Free-range Eggs.

Based in: Margaret River

Available to buy from: For stockists, head to Farm open to the public: Yes, for their annual open day in November

How many hens: 2,500 hens per hectare (pastures are rotated)

Free-range Chicken:

Mt Barker Free-Range Chicken (owned by Milne Agrigroup)

Based in: Mt Barker (near Albany)

Available to buy from: Most supermarkets and butchers

Farm open to the public: No

Free-range Pork:

Jindong Free-range (grass-fed)

Based in: south of Busselton

Available to buy from: The Local Grocer (online); Manning Farmers Market (at Greenfriar Distributions stall)

Farm open to public: Open to industry only

Killara Open-Range Pork

Based in: Boyup Brook

Available to buy from: Selected butchers, such as Exclusive Meats and Meat @79

Farm open to public: Unknown

Laterite Ridge Free-range (also free-range eggs)

Based in: York

Available to buy from: Perth City Farmers

Farm open to public: No

Linley Valley Free Range Pork (owned by Craig Mostyn Group)

Based in: Albany

Available to buy from: Selected butchers; IGA

Farm open to public: No

Plantagenet Pork (owned by Milne Agrigroup)

Based in:  Plantagenet region, Great Southern

Available to buy from: Selected butchers; Coles; Woolworths

Farm open to public: No

Spencers Brook Farm

Based in: Toodyay

Available to buy from: Production currently on hold

Farm open to public: No

To read online, click link