The company embroiled in a fake free range egg scandal may have prematurely culled its flock of 30,000 birds.

The operator of Palace Poultry told Ministry of Primary Industry inspectors that the business would cull its flock if it could no longer on-sell its eggs.

However, no government agency, industry body or Palace Poultry spokesperson would tell Newsroom if the cull has happened – a stance which has drawn even more criticism over the way the industry is regulated.

Palace Poultry’s eggs were pulled from the shelves of its sole supplier, Countdown, in March when Newsroom revealed the brand was likely passing off millions of cage-laid eggs as free range.

The brand was one of Countdown’s largest suppliers of free range eggs in the upper North Island, and had also supplied supposedly free range eggs to the brands Farmer Brown, Woodlands and Select in the past.

Newsroom’s coverage revealed the Serious Fraud Office was investigating Palace Poultry and raised questions about the way the industry was regulated.

One agency does not oversee the production, supply and authenticity of free range claims. Instead, MPI ensures animal welfare, farming codes and food safety standards are met and the Ministry for Consumer Affairs is responsible for food label claims.

An MPI spokeswoman told Newsroom that Palace Poultry’s operator told the agency a mass cull would occur if the business could no longer on-sell its eggs.

“During our farm visit the farmer told us that they were going to start culling birds if they could not find a market for their eggs.

“We did not request this information; the farmer just explained the repercussions of the returned eggs from Countdown and no immediate market for their eggs. This did not eventuate as far as we are aware.”

When asked further questions, the spokeswoman said: “The company is operating normal business practices that pose us no concern.”

Palace Poultry owner Terry Fletcher twice told Newsroom he did not wish to comment on the issue.

Poultry Industry Association New Zealand executive director Michael Brooks said he had not been in contact with Palace Poultry and all queries would have to be directed to MPI.

He said it would likely be hard for Palace Poultry to sell their eggs following the controversy.

Greens’ animal welfare spokeswoman Mojo Mathers said the company’s stance was “sad”.

When the scandal broke, Mathers called for a government inquiry into free range labelling claims.

“The Government needs to take responsibility for dodgy practices and misleading claims around animal welfare because clearly both animals and consumers are being let down by the gaps in the current regime.”

Both MPI and its Minister, Nathan Guy, as well the Commerce Commission and Minister for Consumer Affairs Jacqui Dean, said the current legislation sufficiently regulated the industry.

In its response to Mathers, the Commerce Commission said if there was a gap in regulation, MPI was responsible for fixing it.

Mathers criticised the stance, and was also critical of Food Safety Minister David Bennett’s call to make a legal definition for what constitutes Manuka Honey, without the free range sector getting the same treatment from the government. 

The Manuka move centres around scientific verification of the honey, which is commands a premium price for its medicinal properties and is an attractive product in export markets,

“MPI’s decision to regulate Manuka was driven by the need for consumers to be able to trust labelling claims and protect the honest producers,” said Mathers.

“The same need clearly exists for free range produce. We would like to see MPI step up to establish an ethical and enforceable definition of free-range products, including, but not limited to eggs and regulate accordingly.”

A spokeswoman for Bennett said there were no plans to introduce such a move for free range produce.

She directed Newsroom’s queries to MPI, which again said the agency had no plans to make regulatory action over free range claims.

The Serious Fraud Office is still investigating the allegations against Palace Poultry. The eggs remain unstocked at Countdown supermarkets,

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