Humane Society International (HSI) is pleased that Snowdale Holdings Pty Ltd, one of Australia’s largest egg producers, has been ordered to pay more than $1 million by WA’s Federal Court for deceiving consumers over free range eggs. The company was fined $750,000 for falsely labelling some of its products free range, and has been ordered to pay an additional $300,000 in court costs. The case was brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) following a complaint from Humane Society International and today the Federal Court issued the record penalty.
Verna Simpson, Director of Humane Society International said, “This is a major victory for Australian consumers. The highest penalty ever handed down in a case of this kind to date is $300,000. This company had been charging a premium for eggs produced in anything but free range conditions for 14 years. Consumers can be thankful that justice has been served and Snowdale Holdings have been held to account for their deception.”
Humane Society International submitted a formal complaint to the ACCC in 2012 after initial investigations revealed that Snowdale may have been falsely labelling their eggs as ‘free range’. The ACCC then ran their own investigation and claimed that the Perth-based company sold 71 per cent of its eggs as ‘free range’ from 2012-2013 charging consumers a premium for them. The evidence showed that Snowdale’s so-called free range eggs, sold throughout WA under many brand names including Swan Valley Egg Farm and Eggs by Ellah, were anything but free range.
Ms Simpson continued, “The evidence showed that the number of hens Snowdale squeezed into its barns vastly exceeded those recommended in the Model Code of Practice. The fine suitably reflects the profits Snowdale would have made charging consumers a premium for free range when they clearly weren’t.”
According to the ACCC, the Court found that the company represented that the eggs were laid by hens that were able to go outdoors and roam freely, but that most of the hens from Snowdale sheds did not move around on an open range because the farming conditions significantly inhibited them from doing so.
ACCC lawyer Gail Archer told the Federal Court that Snowdale claimed its eggs were free range when some of its sheds held up to 14 chickens to a square metre. Subsequent to this, WA Today uncovered evidence of cruel and unsanitary conditions impacting thousands of hens.
Ms Simpson said, “Snowdale Holdings was a major supplier to Coles and Woolworths. How this massive deception was not uncovered by the supermarkets’ own quality assurance schemes is a question that still needs to be answered. If Coles and Woolworths had revealed this consumer fraud years ago then such a travesty would not have been allowed to continue for more than a decade.” She continued, “The current free range egg price wars are another example. You can be sure that if you are only paying $4 a dozen then the eggs are not genuine free range. At that price the producer would go broke.”
Following several cases of deceptive conduct the Australian Government has recently intervened to establish an Information Standard for Free Range Eggs. However, in a blow to consumers, the Government has caved in to industry lobbying and now formally allows for intensively farmed hens to be classified as free range. The new standard allows a stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare which is a far cry from the 1500 hens per hectare the CSIRO recommended in the former Model Code.
“Humane Society International recommends consumers always look for a maximum outdoor stocking density of 1500 hens per hectare, and a stamp of approval by an independently audited certification scheme displayed on the egg carton guaranteeing that the eggs are genuinely free range,” concluded Ms Simpson.