Free-range eggs pulled from shelves after investigation finds millions from caged birds

Countdown supermarkets have removed from sale a popular brand of eggs amid claims millions of the eggs were caged eggs repackaged as free-range.

Countdown said it was "extremely concerned" to read reports by new website Newsroom that approximately half of Palace Poultry's eggs were wrongly labelled as free-range.

The supermarket is pointing the finger at the Ministry for Primary Industries, saying MPI's Registered Risk Management Programme audited the eggs and they should have met their criteria.

Palace Poultry eggs in their distinctive yellow container
Palace Poultry eggs (Sarah Templeton / Newshub)

"We are in discussions with MPI, who can address questions about how standards are set and verification", Countdown said. 

But MPI says while they are responsible for animal welfare, they are not responsible for labelling claims. Unless new information comes to light, they will not be investigating, because "there is no evidence to suggest that there are any breaches under the legislation MPI is responsible for regulating."

The supermarket said none of their own brand eggs are supplied by Palace Poultry.

The investigation into Palace Poultry was conducted by journalists Morgan Tait and Melanie Reid and published by Newsroom on Monday morning.

The label on cartons of Palace Poultry eggs says they come from a free-range South Auckland farm, but the investigation found Palace Poultry was supplementing their own eggs with millions of eggs purchased from a supplier selling caged eggs. 

Newsroom was told by Aaron Fletcher, "a key player at Palace Poultry", that he had 30,000 free-range egg-laying hens. They would be estimated to produce around 6000-dozen eggs every week. That's less than half the volume of eggs supplied by Palace Poultry to Countdown supermarkets, which was an average of 13,000-dozen per week.

The investigation calculated that Palace Poultry "would have earned an extra $14,000 per week, according to conservative estimates" from the repackaged cage eggs.

The Serious Fraud Office confirmed to Newshub they do have an investigation underway related to the matter, but would not comment further.

The SPCA told RadioLIVE there needs to be a rigorous independent testing procedure. The SPCA operates an independent voluntary animal welfare accreditation called Blue Tick, which Palace Poultry was not signed up to.

In 2014, a farmer sold 200,000 cage eggs as free-range or barn-laid. At the time of the sentencing, he said falsely labelling eggs was common in the industry. The Egg Producers Federation rejected the claim at the time, saying the previous case had been a decade ago.

Key facts

  • Palace Poultry's farm has 30,000 egg-laying hens, which would produce around 6000-dozen eggs per week.
  • Palace Poultry supplies 13,000-dozen eggs to Countdown every week - a shortfall of 7000-dozen eggs.
  • Surveillance footage shows Palace Poultry's Aaron Fletcher purchasing pallets of caged eggs from Eco Foods every day over a period of five days.
  • Staff members at Eco Foods knew Aaron Fletcher by a different name and said he only buys caged eggs.
  • The Serious Fraud Office is investigating.

Watch the video to see Poultry Palace eggs' Aaron Fletcher face questions from journalist Melanie Reid.

Newshub.