RSPCA approved farming labels challenged

A recent assessment by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) rejected an application by the Australian Egg Corporation relating to a free-range certification trademark.

Public submissions were invited by the ACCC and more than 1700 were received with all but seven opposed to the application.

In light of this decision it is difficult to comprehend an earlier decision of the ACCC with respect to concerns being raised in relation to RSPCA Approved Farming Standards (Paw of Approval) being applied to free range Primo pork products.

The labeling of this product shows a wide open paddock with the words free range displayed in large print. Accompanying the image are the words "This product proudly meets the RSPCA's independent and animal-welfare friendly practices".

However close inspection of the RSPCA's document entitled RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standards reveals high stocking densities of about 19,768 pigs per hectare. This concentration is not what the community considers to be free range consumers pay a premium for free range products and are entitled to have confidence in the labels and accompanying logos attached to food products.

The RSPCA standards may cause consumer confusion making it difficult to make an informed choice. The integrity of free range in the eyes of the consumer has the potential to be compromised.

There is increased public awareness and heightened concerns surrounding food production methods and animal welfare.

Consumers purchasing animal products are entitled to truth in labeling.

Greens MP Dr John Kaye has recently introduced a bill into NSW Parliament with respect to truth in labeling. However the Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodkinson, has indicated she will not support this bill.

The Minister for Primary Industries and her department has enforcement powers for animal cruelty matters under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (POCCTA). Under POCCTA some farming methods are exempt.

An additional difficulty arises in that a Department of Primary Industries views itself as a "friend" of industry or producer interests. There is a conflict of interest with the DPI being responsible for the administration and enforcement of animal protection statutes, such as POCCTA.

In addition to concerns about high stocking densities with respect to RSPCA approval logos as applied to Primo free range pork products, there would appear to be a further conflict of interest as RSPCA derives a commercial advantage from this arrangement due to the RSPCA charging producers 2 per cent of products sold to use their logos.

In the UK, activists from Animal Aid have released shocking footage from piggeries whose pork products carry the RSPCA Freedom Food logo.

A recent 2012 UK report Entitled Farm Assurance Schemes and Animal Welfare (How the Standards Compare) found that there were a number of "key areas for improvement" with the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme which scored poorly in a number of areas against set welfare criteria.

While misleading labeling continues animal welfare will be severely compromised, consumers conned, and farmers providing higher welfare standards with lower stocking densities and higher production costs will be unable to compete with farmers using more intensively-farmed livestock production methods masquerading as free range.

A written request was made to the RSPCA to confirm the stocking density for outdoor pigs as per the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme was less than one square metre for a 35 kilogram pig.

The RSPCA was also asked to disclose the dollar amount the RSPCA received from royalties from sales of all pork products which carry the RSPCA Approved Farming Paw of Approval. No response was received from the RSPCA in relation to these queries.

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