One of Australia’s largest egg producers has been fined $750,000 and ordered to pay another $300,000 in court costs for falsely claiming free-range status on some of its products.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took action against WA company Snowdale Holdings after obtaining evidence of hens at two of its farms not being able to move freely or go in and out of their barns, despite the company branding its eggs as free-range.
Snowdale – the company behind six WA egg labels and one of the biggest supermarket suppliers in the state – denied any wrongdoing.
But in May last year, the Federal Court sided with the ACCC and found the company guilty of misleading customers.
Humane Society International (HIS) said the fine was the largest in Australian history for a breach of its kind.
“The highest penalty ever handed down in a case of this kind to date is $300,000,” HIS director Verna Simpson said.
“This company had been charging a premium for eggs produced in anything but free-range conditions.
“Consumers can be thankful that justice has been served and Snowdale Holdings have been held to account for their deception.”
In addition to the fine, Federal Court Justice Antony Siopis ordered Snowdale pay an additional $300,000 in court costs – taking its total penalty to more than $1 million.
Hens at two farms ‘did not roam freely’
The evidence provided by the ACCC related to the treatment of hens at Snowdale’s Carabooda and Swan Valley farms, on the outskirts of Perth.
The court was told that between 2011 and 2013, Snowdale packed eggs into cartons labelled as “free range”, despite some of its sheds holding up to 14 chickens per square metre.
They were sold under the brand names Swan Valley Egg Farm, Swan Valley Egg Co, Carabooda Lovingly Hand Packed free range eggs, free range eggs by Ellah, Wanneroo Free Range Eggs and Mega Free Range Eggs.
In his ruling last year, Justice Siopis said the hens were housed in four industrial-sized “barns” or “sheds” located at Carabooda and Swan Valley.
“Each of the sheds at Carabooda had the capacity to house about 18,000 laying hens, whilst the shed at the Swan Valley farm had the capacity to house about 12,740 laying hens,” he said.
“I find that most hens did not exit [the sheds] and roam freely on an open range on most days.”
A separate local government investigation was launched into sanitary conditions at Carabooda in 2014 after the discovery of chicken carcasses, with a clean-up ordered.
Snowdale no longer farms at the Carabooda and Swan Valley properties.
The company has previously said the Federal Court ruling did not have “any bearing” on its existing free-range farm in Gingin, in WA’s Wheatbelt.
Under national standards introduced last year, chickens must have “meaningful and regular” access to outdoors and their density must be no more than one hen per square metre – or 10,000 hens per hectare – in order to claim free-range status.