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The RSPCA believes that consumers benefit from the provision of full and accurate information about the welfare of the animals (from birth to slaughter) used in the animal-based products they buy to enable them to make informed purchasing decisions.
At present, the only animal product that is regularly labelled according to its production system is carton eggs. There are three recognised definitions: caged, barn and free range, as defined in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry. While labelling of cartons is voluntary in some states, it is mandatory in the ACT and Tasmania. Although battery cages are legally permitted in Australia, a recent survey found that 84% of Australians want to see battery cages phased out, and consumers have demonstrated increasing interest in purchasing free range eggs, with the proportion of supermarket sales steadily increasing from around 5% in 1997 to 23% in 2007 and 41% in 2017 (50% including cage free and free range).
A free range egg labelling Information Standard was introduced in 2017. However, this standard allows a maximum outdoor stocking density of 10,000 birds per hectare, which is much higher than the maximums specified by accreditation bodies in Australia and overseas which are from 750-2,500 birds per hectare.
There is no legal or generally agreed definition of “free range” when it comes to the production of pork in Australia, despite these terms increasingly being used in the marketing of pork products. Generally speaking, people tend to assume that the term “free range” indicates that animals have had some access to outdoors and are not kept in close confinement. What is meant by “access to outdoors” and “close confinement” is also often undefined and poorly understood.
The public tend to assume that terms such as “free range”, “bred free range”, “organic”, and “biodynamic”, offer improvements in animal welfare over other production systems. This may or may not be the case and will be greatly influenced by the standards applied and the way in which the system is managed.
The RSPCA believes that there should be a nationally consistent approach to the labelling of higher-welfare animal products. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the ethical issues in food production. Given that there are significant differences in the welfare of animals exposed to different production methods, labelling has the potential to provide consumers with consistent and reliable information on the welfare of the animal concerned as well as benefiting the welfare of increasing numbers of farm animals.
In light of the lack of sufficient regulation for farm animal welfare in Australia, the RSPCA has developed a higher-welfare assurance scheme, the Approved Farming Scheme, which provides higher standards than those recommended in the existing legislation. Further information and species-specific animal welfare standards are available online.