Australian poultry giant, Steggles, has been found guilty of misleading consumers about the housing conditions of its chickens.
Two large poultry producers who supply Steggles branded chickens - Baiada Poultry and Bartter Enterprises - were found to have made false, misleading and deceptive claims on their packaging and advertisement by claiming their chickens were free to roam in barns when this was not the case, the federal court ruled.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched the legal action in September, 2011 after the peak industry body, The Australian Chicken Meat Federation (ACMF), claimed on its website that chickens produced in Australia were "free to roam" or able to "roam freely" in large barns.
The ACMF, which was also found to have engaged in false, misleading and deceptive conduct, has so far declined to comment on the ruling.
Statistics from Steggles, which contested the action, indicated between 17 and 19 chickens were stocked together per square metre, giving each chicken access to an area less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
Justice Richard Tracey found that at times in their growth cycle the chickens could not move more than a metre or so without having their further movement obstructed by a barrier of clustered birds. Tracey disagreed with the companies' reality of "free to roam", saying the ordinary and natural meaning of the phrase "free to roam" was “the largely uninhibited ability of the chickens to move around at will in an aimless manner".
The companies all risk fines of $1.1 million per penalty.