WA government hatches plan for stricter welfare standards for egg producers

The WA government wants better standards. Photo by Jamila Toderas.
The WA government wants better standards. Photo by Jamila Toderas.

WA's egg producers could soon have stricter welfare standards after the state government forecast plans to push for tighter regulations.

Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan announced she would host a roundtable with industry leaders on Wednesday in order to discuss possible dissent to draft Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry.

In a media statement, the government hit out at the proposed national guidelines and said they would "make little improvement to the welfare standards of egg-laying and meat chickens".

"Our government wants to take a united WA position back to our State and Federal counterparts that will bring real improvements to the draft national standards on poultry," she said.

"[Wednesday's] roundtable is an opportunity for WA's poultry industries to be on the front foot in guiding modern animal welfare standards for the State and the nation."

The current draft is a nationwide initiative, and was developed by Animal Health Australia after the Animal Welfare Committee was dissolved in 2013.

The WA government previously raised concerns about the proposed standards in November last year.

It flagged issues with the guidelines after it was released for public consultation, and said it would "in many ways, maintain the status quo on the use of battery cages and stocking densities for chickens".

"The WA government is also concerned that the draft standards do not reflect the latest scientific work on animal welfare."

Nationwide controversy over 'scientific considerations'

National bodies have previously raised the same concerns, with the RSPCA even threatening to quit the drafting process in protest, saying it would leave the group if the standards "didn't reflect the science".

The organisation said it feared the process had been "heavily influenced" by industrial egg producers, who were allegedly slowing down efforts to phase out battery cages.

Also in February last year three animal welfare scientists sent a scathing letter to the group, and said their research had been distorted in order to appear "in favour" of conventional caged egg production.

Ms MacTiernan said in the interest of balance, representatives from the Commercial Egg Producers' Association WA, the WA Poultry Association, the WA Chicken Meat Council, the WA Broilers' Association, RSPCA and Animal Australia have been invited to put forward their position on the draft standards.

"We want to see if we can reach a consensus that balances modern science on animal welfare, consumer expectations and industry needs," Ms MacTiernan said.

She indicated there would also be a focus on conditions for egg-laying chickens, rather than "meat" chickens.

The roundtable discussion will inform the government's formal submission regarding the proposed standards, which are set to be the first of its kind to indicate an acceptable basis for implementing consistent legislation nationwide.

Currently, there is no official standard for Australian free-range eggs apart from CSIRO recommendations.

Free range egg loopholes 'wide enough to drive truck through': RSPCA

Just last year, one of WA's biggest egg producers was forced to fork out more than a million dollars after it was penalised for falsely labelling some of its products free range.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission brought the action against Snowdale Holdings back in 2014 over its farms in Carabooda and the Swan Valley in Perth's north, which produce brands including Eggs by Ellah.

ACCC investigations revealed the company sold 71 per cent of its eggs as 'free range' from 2012-2013 and charged consumers a premium for them.

According to the ACCC, the company made claims the eggs were laid by hens that were able to go outdoors and roam freely, but the same court heard last year that investigations found half of the chickens probably never got outside because the sheds were overstocked and had only one exit, which was too small.

After the company was charged, the RSPCA said it was time to tighten the controls on poultry welfare nationwide.

"The loopholes are wide enough to drive a truck through," Jed Goodfellow, senior policy officer at RSPCA Australia, said.

"It's gone from a process of providing consumers with confidence to essentially protecting large-scale commercial free range farmers.

"It's done a complete 180-degree turn and that is due to pressure the agriculture ministers have placed on consumer affairs ministers at the state level."

The company was officially penalised in July last year.