THE Australian Egg Corporation has been accused of a cover-up and survey shopping in its bid to find consumer support for its preferred new definition of ''free-range eggs'' - 20,000 hens per hectare, or eight times the limit most free-range egg producers recommend.
An initial survey conducted in 2010 found just 7 per cent of 5000 consumers believed a density of 16,000-20,000 hens could be classified as ''free range''. However, the survey results were not published on the corporation's website until last month, after a follow-up survey in May had recorded the far more favourable result of 84 per cent support for the 20,000 hens per hectare density limit.
Phil Westwood, of the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia, accused the corporation of covering up the results of the earlier study.
Mr Westwood said the corporation - which represents about 400 commercial egg producers - repeatedly told free-range farmers that there was community support for the 20,000 hen per hectare limit during industry consultations about the proposed new definition of ''free range'' - despite knowing at the time that fewer than one in 10 people deemed it acceptable.
''By refusing to release the data earlier, they [Egg Corporation] prevented egg producers from fully participating in the consultation process, which led to the development of the disastrous Egg Standards Australia proposal,'' Mr Westwood said. ''We think the 20,000 hens per hectare is nonsense and it is not supported.''
The free-range egg industry code limits producers to 1500 hens per hectare but there is no legally enforceable definition of free range.
The Egg Corporation's James Kellaway rejected Mr Westwood's assertions and said the 2010 survey was done before the corporation had completed its global literature review of welfare science and standards and this influenced its decision to conduct a second survey.
The Egg Corporation released its preferred new definition of free-range eggs - the 20,000 hens a hectare limit - last September and is seeking a quality assurance trademark through the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to make it the standard.
About 40 million dozen eggs are labelled free range in Australia, about one-third of the national retail egg market.
The corporation predicts that without a new standard increasing the ratio of hens to area, the price of eggs will skyrocket based on current market share, population growth and rising egg consumption.