Steggles chickens that were labelled ‘free to roam’ were being held in cramped sheds and given less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper in space, the Federal Court has found.
Two of Australia’s largest poultry producers who supply Steggles branded chickens, Baiaida Poultry and Bartter Enterprises, were found to have made false, misleading and deceptive claims on their packaging and advertisements in a finding delivered on Monday.
Court documents show the poulty producers’ sheds in the Griffith regionwere holding an average of 30,000 to 40,000 chickens, or almost 20 chickens per square metre.
At the same time the two companies, which control a significant share in the Australian chicken meat market, were spending an estimated $5 million on advertising, assuring their customers that their chickens were raised in “large carefully ventilated barns with comfortable bedding material covering the floor, where they are free to roam and have easy access to food and water”.
Justice Richard Tracey disagreed with the companies’ reality of “free to roam”, saying the ordinary and natural meaning of the phrase ‘free to roam’ was “the largely uninhibited ability of the chickens to move around at will in an aimless manner”.
For the majority of the chicken’s life (42 days), the chicken could not move more than a metre without being obstructed by a barrier of clustered birds, Justice Tracey said, after touring the sheds near Griffith, in regional NSW.
Yet without legislated definitions, terms like ‘free-range’ and ‘free to roam’ will continue to be misused by producers keen to cash in on the higher prices these labels attract, Greens NSW MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi said.
“Cramming birds into sheds with less than an A4 sheet of paper to move and conning consumers into thinking that the birds are ‘free to roam’ represents the worst kind of consumer deception.”
Mr Faruqi said the term ‘free to roam’ is a marketing thought bubble, not a genuine reference to animal welfare standards, .
The Federal Court finding was a good result for the the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission which instigated legal action against the two poultry producers in 2011.
The misleading claims not only deliberately deceived ethical-conscious consumers, but created unfair competition between poultry providers who paid additional costs to ensure their chickens were “free range” or “free to roam”, the ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said.
“We know that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for foods that have credence claims about them, such as free to roam or organic,” Ms Court said.
These ‘free to roam’ claims were plainly directed at enticing consumers, who may have had ethical concerns about the treatment of animals, she said.
The peak industry body for Australia’s chicken meat, The Australian Chicken Meat Federation, was also found to have engaged in false, misleading and deceptive conduct, by claiming on its website that chickens produced in Australia were ‘free to roam’ or able to ‘roam freely’ in large barns.
The companies all risk fines of $1.1 million per penalty.
Justice Tracey will hear penalty submissions on a date to be fixed.