A chicken producer has been hit with a massive fine for misleading consumers to believe its chooks were free range.
Baiada Poultry and Bartter Enterprises - who supply Steggles - will be forced to pay a $400,000 fine after the companies faced an ACCC charge in the Federal Court.
In July this year, Federal Court Justice Richard Tracey found in favour of the ACCC which claimed the chickens, which were advertised as "free to roam in large barns", had a living space the size of an A4 sheet of paper. The fine was handed down last week.
Justice Tracey toured a number of the living sheds during the trial and found the chickens were so tightly packed into the barns they could only move if they pushed through the group of birds or encountered a space between the birds.
Court documents showed the poultry producers’ sheds held an average of 30,000 to 40,000 chickens – or almost 20 chickens per square metre.
Peak industry body The Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc was also ordered to pay $20,000 in penalties for claiming in publications on its website that meat chickens produced in Australia were free to roam or able to roam freely in large barns.
Processor and supplier of La Ionica Poultry products, Turi Foods, was involved in the matter but settled its proceedings with the ACCC for a $100,000 penalty.
“The phrase “free to roam” meant in the context of chickens, ‘the largely uninhibited ability of chickens to move around at will in an aimless manner’,” Justice Tracey said in his findings.
“Until the levels dropped at some point between the 33rd and 42nd days of the growth cycle chickens could not, in my judgment, be said to be free to move around the sheds at will and with a sufficient degree of unimpeded movement to justify the assertion that they were free to roam.”
ACCC chairman Rod Sims said credence claims were a priority area for the consumer watchdog, “particularly those in the food and beverage industry with the potential to influence consumers and disadvantage competitors”.
“Consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions that value the types of claims that directly affect the integrity of the product, such as where or how something was made, grown or produced,” Mr Sims said.
“Consumers must be able to trust that products match descriptions so they can make informed purchasing decisions.
“Misleading credence claims can also undermine the level playing field and disadvantage other suppliers.”