One of Australia’s biggest egg producers has continued to defend its farming practices after coming under scrutiny in the Federal Court yesterday as the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission sought to prove that the West Australian family-owned company misled customers over its free-range eggs.

The ACCC has alleged Snowdale Holdings, which runs Swan Valley Egg Farms and owns Coles and Woolworths-stocked brands including Free Range Eggs by Ellah, misled customers in its use of the label “free range”.

Snowdale Holdings director Barry Cocking told the court that, at times, between 2011-13, he had exceeded the West Australian Code of Practice for Poultry’s recommended free-range stock density of 1500 hens per hectare because it was voluntary and “it’s not fast, firm rules — it’s a guide”.

Gail Archer SC, for the ACCC, said Snowdale Holdings’s stock density was at times six hens per square metre compared with the code’s requirement of one.

Mr Cocking yesterday said he had refused to settle the proceedings out of court because he was fighting for a national standard for free-range eggs.

“I’ll fight the ACCC on what I believe is a free-range egg,” he said. I’m the only one in Australia pushing for a standard out there.”

That seems not to be the case as the Australian egg industry is working with state and territory consumer affairs ministers and federal Small Business Minister Bruce Billson to draft a national code of conduct by mid-June.

It is expected that a national code would take into account the animal welfare code of practice now under review, and work through a variety of certification and labelling standards. Ahead of national talks, major egg producers have baulked at moves by the South Australian government to certify free-range egg labels for farmers who stock a maximum of 1500 birds a hectare.

Business Services and Consumers Minister Gail Gago has said the code’s aim was to remove confusion for consumers, with an “SA free-range egg compliant” logo.

Dion Andary, managing ­director of the state’s second-­largest producer, Days Eggs, whose free-range stocks are capped at 10,000 birds per hectare, said the proposed logo would add to confusion for consumers.

“It’s simply a misrepresentation of the perception that ­because you’re a 1500-bird per hectare producer that your product is better when in actual fact you may breach three or four standards in animal welfare and food safety,’’ he said.

Days’ submission to the government is to have two free-range classifications; a high-density, 10,000 birds per hectare one for large commercial farmers and a low-density, 1500 birds per hectare one for farmers supplying niche markets.

He called the draft code and trademark a form of market interference and warned that large, lower-cost commercial producers complying with lower stocking levels would price smaller producers out of the market.

Solar Eggs managing director Jonothan Attard, who with Days stocks 10,000 birds a hectare and makes up 80 per cent market share, said consumers should be allowed to decide. “If everyone puts (stock per hectare) on their cartons then the consumer has the full choice,’’ he said.

The ACT and Queensland are the only jurisdictions with free-range legislation — the ACT’s requiring farmers to have a maximum of 1500 birds a hectare while Queensland’s limit is 10,000.

Extracted in full from The Australian.