Poultry industry to vote on compulsory egg stamping

As the farm at the centre of a free-range egg scandal is about to be sold in a multi-million dollar sale, the poultry industry is days away from voting in new measures to determine the authenticity of free-range products.

Three months after Newsroom revealed that millions of caged eggs were likely sold as free range at New Zealand supermarkets, Morgan Tait looks at how the revelation has changed the industry.

The sale of the 27.5 hectare lifestyle block which ran a supposed free range egg scam under the Palace Poultry brand has gone unconditional in what will be a multi-million dollar sale.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand poultry industry is just weeks away from voting in compulsory egg stamping.

The Ararimu farm sale and stamping follow Newsroom’s investigation into Palace Poultry, which revealed the brand likely sold millions of caged eggs in free-range packaging at Upper North Island supermarkets. (Watch the investigation story in the video player above.)

The Serious Fraud Office is still investigating the business and farm owners, Aaron Fletcher and his father Terry Fletcher.

After 30 years in the Fletcher family, the sale of the Steel Rd, Ararimu farm went unconditional to a prospective buyer unknown to the family, said Property Brokers Waikato agent Peter Lissington.

Lissington said the details of the transaction were confidential, but said it was a popular listing for its pre-existing resource consent for 30,000 birds and its close proximity to Auckland City.

He said there were about 20 tenders entered for the property, which also has five bedrooms, a staff quarters, a motocross track, an indoor heated saltwater plunge pool and large “man cave”.

The property was listed in April, and the tender process took about five weeks to complete, said Lissington.

 “The owners are in their 70s now and wanting to retire,” he said.

He said the accusations around the farm’s owners, Terry Fletcher and his wife, and their son, Aaron, were “fully disclosed” to potential buyers.

However, details of the potential sale - includings its price - were confidential until the sale was complete and the information required to be placed on public record.

Advertising for the property described it as a “5 bedroom homestead with a 2 bedroom self-contained unit, 3 bathrooms and 9 toilets.

The "man cave" on the Fletcher's property. Photo:

“Large garaging and huge shedding for cars, implements or storage. Covered, heated, salt swimming pool.

“3 bedroom second home and 2 bedroom workers quarters. But wait.... there's more! Resource consent for 30,000 birds, 4 chicken laying houses, free range with collecting - cleaning and sorting facilities. Pack house, chiller, office and staff room. 

“This property has been in the family for 30 years and run as a very successful free range egg operation. Set at the end of a no-exit road, you will also find 3 large duck ponds and a motocross track.

“There is so much here for the extended family, business, pleasure, income and more [sic]!”

Newsroom’s revelations about activities at the farm highlighted how millions of caged eggs were being brought onto the property and repackaged as the free-range Palace Poultry brand.

The farm had also packed eggs for the Woodlands, Farmer Brown and Select brands in the past, raising questions about the effectiveness of systems to protect consumers who make the choice to pay a premium price for eggs they believe are ethically farmed.

There is no legal definition of “free-range” in New Zealand, so while there are a number of independent accreditation schemes, Newsroom’s coverage highlighted potential weaknesses in these.

There is also not one process or policy that oversees the production of free-range eggs through to their consumption by consumers.

The Ministry of Primary Industries is responsible for farming regulation and the Commerce Commission holds food manufacturers to account over their label claims.

While the initial complaint was laid with the Commerce Commission in mid-2016, due to the large scale of the alleged offending it was passed onto the SFO.

The SFO has yet to make any arrests, but a spokeswoman told Newsroom the agency was still investigating.

Now, head of the Egg Federation, Michael Brooks, says the industry is looking to up its self-regulation and will vote next week to introduce compulsory egg stamping.

Woodlands introduced the initiative for its products last month, but if voted in Brooks said the method would be used by all brands.

The initiative involves stamping eggs with unique codes at the source of laying which can be traced by consumers online.

He said “extensive” work had gone into the initiative, including travelling to Australia and looking at similar systems operating there.

The board will vote to introduce the idea on July 13, meaning if it is introduced it likely won’t be rolled out industry-wide until later this year, or longer.

“The focus is looking at an egg stamping with a farm identified and a production identifier, a number system which is used internationally to identify a product so a customer is able to go to a website and see, ‘What does this mean,’ and, ‘Where is it from’.”

Since Newsroom’s story, the egg wholesaler where the Fletcher’s purchased caged eggs from, Eco Foods in Bombay, has switched to only selling free-range eggs.

Previously, the business sold both free-range and caged eggs. At the time, owner Robert Heheworth said all the invoices signed by the Fletchers clearly stated the eggs were caged.

That paperwork was now with the SFO, he said.

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