This story is bound to ruffle a few feathers… Across the Tasman, there is a group fighting back against free range chickens and eggs.

Farmers, politicians and animal rights activists have had their feathers ruffled over the Australian egg body’s free-range definition announced this week, with claims it harms ethical producers and puts the industry’s legitimacy in to question.

The Australian Egg Corporation (AECL) defined the term free-range – as allowing as many as 20,000 chickens per hectare – for the very first time in draft standards sent to producers this week.

The AECL want this definition to be legally enforceable, as compared to the current standard – 1500 chickens per hectare – which is not.

The NSW Greens have already put forward a bill to Premier Barry O’Farrell, stating that the definition “is making a mockery” of the term free-range.

“They are increasing stocking densities to a level that no consumer purchasing free range eggs for ethical reasons would find reasonable,” says John Kaye, Greens NSW MP.

He says its correct that a legal standard needs to be enforced, but that “the standards they have proposed will destroy genuine free range farmers by allowing large factory farm producers to use the term for eggs that are not by any reasonable definition free-range”.

Whilst reports are circulating in the mainstream press today, there’s evidence that the AECL has been planning to raise the threshold to 20,000 for quite some time, with the Humane Society International speaking out on the issue as early as June last year.

“The changes proposed by the Australian Egg Corporation will allow large producers to charge customers a premium for branding their eggs as ‘free range’ without incurring the additional costs of genuine free range production methods,” a press release from the society read in June 2010.

“The proposed AECL stocking density would be a totally unsustainable land use and have serious animal welfare implication.”

Various free-range farmers and organic producers speaking out today in a SMH article agreed with these claims.

MP Kaye’s bill is set to be debated in a parliament in a fortnight and says that egg farmers must not have more than 750 hens per hectare to be considered free-range.

It also states that there must be shade, shelter and vegetation and no beak trimming.

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