Earlier this month the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) instituted proceedings in the Federal Court, alleging misleading or deceptive conduct in relation to the promotion and supply of chicken products.
The matter, which has been filed in the Melbourne registry on the fast track list, is against Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd and Bartter Enterprises Pty Ltd which supply chickens nationally under the well-known Steggles brand, Turi Foods which supplies La Ionica brand meat chickens in NSW and Victoria and the Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
The allegation that the ACCC seeks the Court to determine against Baiada Poultry and Bartter Enterprises is that they made false or misleading claims in print advertising and product packaging stating that the chickens that end up as Steggles meat were raised in barns with substantial space available, allowing them to roam freely. Steggles is a large supplier to KFC who, whilst not a party to the proceedings, has since removed references from its website about its chickens ability to "roam free".
The ACCC alleges that Turi Foods made false or misleading representations through in-store displays and advertising on delivery trucks. La Ionica brand meat chickens were claimed to be able to roam freely in barns with substantial space and in conditions equivalent to a free range system.
More broadly, the ACCC has also brought the action against the industry's peak body; The Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc. The allegation being that the Federation has engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct and made misleading representations that meat chickens are raised in barns in which they have substantial space available, allowing them to roam around freely. The ACCC alleges that the population density of meat chickens raised in barns preclude such movement.
As would perhaps be expected, given its jurisdiction, the ACCC has brought the action in the interests of "promoting consumer interests and ensuring companies adhere to the law" rather than in the interests of the chickens. The case has not been brought to allow chickens to roam free or in some other way to better their lives; indeed it does not allege that they have been treated illegally. Under the law there is, in fact, precious little that cannot be done legally to chickens in the name of profit.
These particular suppliers have found themselves before the Court because of what they have claimed about the treatment they afford to animals in their 'care'. In such circumstances the ACCC can have a cause of action on behalf of consumers whilst the RSPCA can do nothing on behalf of the chickens concerned.
The law applying to farmed chickens is neither transparent nor straight forward. Each state and territory has animal welfare legislation which purports to protect the welfare of animals; however every one of them enables massive loopholes in the form of Codes of Practice. Codes which the respondent producers will no doubt seek to claim that they have fully complied with. This may well be true, but does not, in of itself, in any way attest to chickens being able to roam free.
When hearing that there are Codes of Practice which apply to specific industries, one could be forgiven for believing they are in addition to the protections provided in state based animal welfare legislation. This is sadly not the case. As with other farmed animals, the Codes of Practice for poultry operate as exemptions, permitting treatment which if applied to dogs and cats would be illegal.
Under the Model Code of Practice for Poultry, stocking densities of 20 birds or 40kg per square metre are allowed. This includes space for feeding and watering equipment, which means that for birds that are slaughtered at 2 kilograms, each has the equivalent of 500 square centimetres of floor. This is about the size of an A4 piece of paper. Such a situation, despite the absence of cages, could not reasonably be categorised as providing room to freely move.
These instruments, which do not require parliamentary approval, entrench existing factory farming methods as the norm and deem them acceptable and legal. It is, in fact, the Codes of Practice that should be investigated as false and misleading.
Every year in Australia, over 480 million chickens are raised and slaughtered for their meat. This represents a staggering increase over the past six decades. Industry sources estimate that 3 million chickens were killed annually for such purposes in the early 1950s. As the Federal Court will presumably hear, this massive increase has been possible through the way these birds are now farmed.
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