Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 22 May 2012
Australian Egg Corporation
- Mr James Kellaway, Managing Director
CHAIR: We will now call the Australian Egg Corporation. Welcome, Mr Kellaway. We will go to questions. Senator Rhiannon.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Kellaway, I think probably the best one to start with is the comment you made:
... if the current recommendation for free range hens of 1500 hens per hectare was not lifted to 20,000/hectare then Australia would be forced to import eggs from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia.
However, I think you are aware that the importation of fresh shell eggs is not permitted under Australian quarantine laws. Why did you make those statements?
Mr Kellaway: What we do know is those countries that cap an outdoor stocking density on free-range systems do import a lot of eggs. What we also know is, given the demographic make-up of the Australian free-range industry, if we were to cap at that type of density level it would leave a significant vacuum in the supply of eggs into the Australian market.
Senator RHIANNON: But you actually said we would be forced to import eggs from those countries. That is not possible currently.
Mr Kellaway: I may have said ‘could be forced’.
Senator RHIANNON: As you are aware, many people saw it as a misleading statement. Were you misleading the public or did you not understand the legal situation when you made the statement?
Mr Kellaway: I understood that at the moment we are not able to, as a country, import fresh shell eggs. However, import risk assessments can be undertaken, so that does not mean we will not be able to in the future. From that perspective we have apples from New Zealand, we have pork and chicken meat import protocols, and that could happen with eggs. Certainly there would be pressure for that to happen with eggs if there were a vacuum in supply locally.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, but it is quite different from the other imports that are occurring, because they are permitted. The imports of those and many other products are permitted. Can you understand why many people saw it as misleading?
Mr Kellaway: Not necessarily, because those products—apples, pork and chicken meat—could not be imported from certain countries not so long ago. From that perspective, currently imports of fresh shell eggs are not permitted. Powdered egg product is imported but fresh shell eggs are not, but certainly import risk assessments can be undertaken.
Senator RHIANNON: Were the statements motivated by a bid to defend battery cage eggs and higher stocking densities?
Mr Kellaway: No, they were motivated by the fact that, if we want to keep an affordable and available range of eggs for all Australians, there would be pressure on the importation of fresh shell eggs.
Senator RHIANNON: But in this context of this issue around defending stocking levels, we also have that interesting way you use scientific research from the Scottish Agricultural College. It was suggested that you misrepresented their claims that research supported free-range stocking densities of 20,000 hens per hectare. Dr Victoria Sandilands from that research centre said:
If the Australia Egg Corporation think that 20,000 hens/hectare is acceptable outdoors, then it would be too far a stretch to say this is based on our work. This alteration would need considerable research on what is acceptable outdoors to back it up.
So can you explain why you interpreted and publicly used the Scottish research in a way that the college itself took issue with?
Mr Kellaway: We never based our 20,000 maximum density solely on that research. We did reference that research or source it simply because that research we thought, understandably, provided a stocking density that would provide natural behaviours to be exercised by birds. The research was also not done on the range. It was done indoors. From that perspective we are aware and we do know of a need to do such research. There is no research globally in this space.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you disputing the criticism that Dr Sandilands has voiced about the way you used their research? Are you standing by your original comments?
Mr Kellaway: What I do not agree with is that we solely based our minimum standard on that research. We referenced the research—
Senator RHIANNON: No, that is not my question. My question was: do you stand by your original comments and do you therefore reject the statement that Dr Sandilands gave in response to your statement?
Mr Kellaway: That it was solely based on her research? Yes, I do.
Senator RHIANNON: You reject it?
Mr Kellaway: That is correct.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you believe there is a role for the federal government to financially support farmers who wish to exit the hen industry or transition from cage eggs to free-range production systems?
CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, you are straying into matters of opinion there. You may want to reword your question.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Chair. For farmers who wish to transition from cage eggs to free-range production systems, what support is needed for that? And are you advocating for that?
Mr Kellaway: We are not advocating for it at this stage because we believe cage egg production systems do provide animal welfare benefits. They also provide an economical source of a staple protein product for the community. Also, we do not wish to disenfranchise those consumers who currently purchase 60 per cent of eggs.
Senator RHIANNON: How can you say there are animal welfare benefits for these hens, when they are stuck in a cage for all of their lives?
Mr Kellaway: If I may, Chair, I would like to table a report about the definitions of animal welfare. Certainly the five freedoms from the Farm Animal Welfare Council suggest that there are welfare benefits—such as no soil- or manure-borne diseases, minimal pathogenic or parasitic influences on the bird, protection from predators et cetera—that cages do provide. What we do acknowledge as an industry is that no production system provides an ideal welfare environment. However, we do need to continue with our research and development in all systems. We recognise that as an industry.
CHAIR: Are you tabling that report?
Mr Kellaway: I am happy to, Mr Chair.
Senator RHIANNON: Would you put the animal welfare standards of battery-caged hens on par with free-range hens? You have said that there are animal welfare standards for caged hens. Are you saying that those standards, in terms of the experience for the chicken, are similar or would you put one way of raising hens above another in terms of animal welfare standards?
Mr Kellaway: Certainly I said there were benefits in terms of all production systems. We do know that there are usually greater outcomes in welfare benefits to the bird within production systems than between them. So the welfare of the bird, which we have at our heart, has more to do with the stockmanship and hen husbandry employed on-farm than solely the production system used, and that was also discovered recently by Dr Jeff Downing at the University of Sydney.
Senator RHIANNON: So that I understand what you are saying: are you saying that it is not so much how the chickens are housed, it is how they are treated?
Mr Kellaway: Yes, the management and stockmanship on-farm.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering we are talking about production of huge numbers of hens, surely there is not that much interaction in terms of the animal husbandry. It really is the production that dominates the lives of those animals.
Mr Kellaway: Yes. All I can do is defer to the scientists in this regard and the findings that they have come up with through what we consider to be fairly robust research, design and methodology.
Senator RHIANNON: It was just that one study, wasn’t it?
Mr Kellaway: There are two, actually, and I am happy to table them.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, thank you. To ask the question again, you are arguing that there are no significant animal welfare differences between free-range and battery-raised hens?
Mr Kellaway: What I am suggesting is that there are different animal welfare benefits, depending on the production system used.
Senator RHIANNON: Is there representation from free-range hen producers on your board?
Mr Kellaway: Yes, there is.
Senator RHIANNON: How many are there and what is the proportion, please?
Mr Kellaway: We have three directors on our board who have free-range egg production systems as part of their business.
Senator RHIANNON: And the proportion?
Mr Kellaway: The proportion of how many directors?
Senator RHIANNON: Yes. How many directors are there altogether?
Mr Kellaway: We have six directors all up. Five of those are non-executive directors and three of those have free-range egg production systems.
Senator RHIANNON: What consultation, if any, have you had with free-range hen farmers in developing your proposal for free-range stocking density of 20,000 birds per hectare?
Mr Kellaway: We had significant consultation over about a two- or three-year period. We met with the Free Range Egg Producers Association. We consulted among all egg producers in all states. It was an open invitation. We also requested written submissions from egg producers relating to all our standards, of which there are over 170.
Senator RHIANNON: Will you make public the methodology employed in your consumer research into free-range stocking densities?
Mr Kellaway: Chair, if I may, I would like to table that report as well—that consumer research.
Senator RHIANNON: It is not just the research, it is the methodology that you have used. Is that set out in the report?
Mr Kellaway: Yes, it is.
Senator RHIANNON: Have you conducted similar consumer research showing current stocking densities of hens in battery cages?
Mr Kellaway: No, we have not.
Senator RHIANNON: Why haven’t you done that?
Mr Kellaway: We have not at this stage felt the need to do so. From that perspective, we have put our focus to date mainly on non-cage systems or alternative production systems such as free-range and barn. However, we would be more than happy to look at further research as it relates to caged egg production systems.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering how this issue is rolling out—and going back to some of the comments that you have made that I asked you about at the beginning of this session that have become very controversial—it would seem unusual that you did not require studies of hens in battery cages when you were looking into free-range stocking densities. It seems like an omission. Would you agree with that?
Mr Kellaway: If I understand the question correctly, we were focusing on—and a lot of the debate has been on—free-range production systems. So understandably we—
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, it is free-range versus battery. That is what is going on here, isn’t it? There is a debate going on about free-range, but it is in the context that there are other ways to raise hens—the battery—and that is what you also represent. That is why it seems extraordinary that you did not deal with the other study as well.
Mr Kellaway: Certainly through usage-and-attitude consumer work we have done in the past, we do know that there are a large number of Australian consumers, represented through samples we have taken in consumer research, who prefer to purchase free-range eggs. However, their behaviour at the point of sale is such that the majority of those consumers purchase caged eggs. What we are passionate about as an industry is to provide freedom of choice and let consumers choose and make up their own minds.
Senator RHIANNON: What proportion of research and development funding has AECL invested in research into improving the animal welfare and production outcomes in alternative systems?
Mr Kellaway: I will refer to my notes, if I may. In recent years we have invested about 38 to 40 per cent on animal welfare issues. Most of that research has been in non-cage systems because we feel that most of the research for cage systems as it relates to the welfare or wellbeing of the bird has previously been undertaken.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that information in one of the reports you are tabling?
Mr Kellaway: No, it is not.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you able to table that?
Mr Kellaway: Not today, but I am happy to at a later time.
Senator RHIANNON: I will give you the other questions on notice. Thank you very much. Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Rhiannon. Senator Gallacher was going to ask a question, but I had to explain to him that Easter eggs do not come under your jurisdiction! So, Mr Kellaway, you can go.
Mr Kellaway: Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: They are ‘eggsiting’ the building!