A Kinder, Tastier Chicken

Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia

Traditionally, when a native man killed an animal to nourish himself and his people, he would be very grateful and often would thank the animal’s spirit for the sacrifice that it made. In modern times, it is rare that a person needs to hunt for food, because everything is available for a price from the local grocer. Eggs come in a carton, meat comes skinless and boneless in a container sold by the pound and people tend see it just that way. Of course there are exceptions to that; there are people who do know exactly where their food comes from and are conscious of it when making their purchases.

Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia Ltd was established with the goal of changing and improving standards in the fresh poultry and egg industry. The association maintains a strict set of conditions that define what the term ‘Free Range’ means, and all of its members must adhere to these rules to be able to proudly print the FREPA logo on their products. FREPA’s aim is to ensure that its members are treating their livestock as animals who have needs and rights, not just commodities.

The members of the organisation work very hard to keep the free range standard because they want to make sure that the birds have a good life. The standards therein include the management of the pastures, trees for the birds to nest in, their dust bath, the quality of their feed, disease prevention measures, and protection from predators. FREPA members believe that a happy bird is a tasty bird, and that the high standards the birds enjoy during their lives will be reflected in the quality of the meat.

A stressed chicken, conversely, is a very unhappy chicken, and one which may lay odd looking eggs or refuse to lay at all. Stress can cause all sorts of other negative behaviours as well; stressed birds may eat their own eggs, may peck their own feathers off or peck other birds to death. There are actually devices out there called ‘Poly-Peepers’ that were developed to stop birds from pecking each other. These devices are actually attached to the chicken by sticking a small rod through their septum and permanently affixing the device in front of their eyes. This step was taken so that farmers could stress their chickens however they pleased without having as many ill consequences.

The FREPA Free Range Care standards also encompass aspects of egg farming such as how many birds are allowed per square metre, when and where they can range, what the range looks like, food supplies, shelter, artificial lighting, what kind of yolk enhancing foods can be used, the use of growth hormones, and even land transport conditions, processing and packing.

According to the organisation’s website at http://www.frepa.com.au, “Our farmers are interested in producing a quality product. The eggs and meat are produced under conditions which are friendly to the bird and to the environment. Our members abide by conditions which show an interest in: animal welfare, animal health, environmental sustainability, land care and public health.”

FREPA has been around since late 1993, following the deregulation of the egg board. A group of free range poultry farmers saw the need for regulations that would determine what kind of farm could be deemed free range. Without an organisation such as this, any farm could advertise its product as free range without actually having to follow any guidelines.

At the time of FREPA’s inception in 1993, a few similar organisations within New South Wales and Queensland had already formed, so much of the formula was in place, along with the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system that had been put in place for consumer safety. The first meeting of the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Victoria Incorporated took place in October 1993, and by the following year the first farms were being inspected for accreditation.

In 1999, FREPA started a trial for commercial poultry, aimed at developing new standards for farms that would produce free range chicken meat. In 2000, it was the first association granted third party certification and then in 2002 the association became a Company Limited by Guarantee so that farmers from out of state could become members.

According to Meg Parkinson, Director and Immediate Past President, “Our label gives an independent assessment that our members are complying, not only with the law which is the absolute minimum, but with FREPA standards which are well above the minimum. There is so much hype about how to tell if a farm actually produces free range, but with FREPA we have a third party auditor that will physically look at the farm and determine whether or not they can be a member.”

All third party auditors used by FREPA are certified by QSA and once a farm has been accepted as a member of FREPA, an auditor can inspect the farm at any time to make sure that there is ongoing compliance. Often, however, when conditions within a farm change in a negative way the product changes negatively as well, according to Ms Parkinson. “People tell us all the time that the taste is quite different, both for eggs and chicken meat. Sometimes we don’t even have to send an auditor to the farm; when things aren’t right we soon hear about it from the consumer.”

The organisation has largely been built by volunteers who have given their time to work for a good cause. These volunteers are dedicated to making sure that there is a clear set of principles that define the products that they are labelling as superior product compared to producers that don’t care about their chickens or the community around them.

It is important to know what is in the food that we eat and where it comes from, and according to a survey that was done around 18 months ago, increasing numbers of Australians are gaining this awareness. Within the survey, the FREPA logo was the third most recognised label; considering the fact that FREPA has never taken part in any real advertising campaign, the survey proves that FREPA members do actually produce an overall better product and that many consumers are aware of this.

FREPA takes an active and engaged role within the industry, and is always looking for new ideas and companies to work with. The organisation’s phone lines are open to anyone with questions or concerns. With that being said, the company has primarily been active within the retail side of the market, but according to Ms Parkinson, that may change as FREPA’s membership grows.

“Mostly the initiative has been at the retail level,” she explains, “but we will look at other propositions as well. Certainly on the chicken meat side, processing seems to be pretty important but there hasn’t been a lot of processing of free range egg, because there haven’t been very many spare eggs, but that may very well be a possibility into the future.”

Mayonnaise and other prepared foods, for example, could certainly be made with certified free range eggs, and this is a new market sector in which FREPA could play a strong role. At this point in Australia, the eggs used in processed foods are typically those which couldn’t be sold in their raw form – overly small or overly large eggs, or eggs with an odd colour or shape are often used in these products, but this need not be the case.

We all have the power, as consumers and citizens, to choose what we do, what we eat and how we want to engage with the other creatures of the Earth. Organisations such as FREPA are working hard at bringing kinder, more sustainable options to the marketplace – options which are there if we just know how to look for them. In this case, what to look for is the distinctive, eye-catching logo of the black chicken and the green map of Australia.

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December 19, 2018, 5:29 PM AEDT