THE UK virus that infected Coles a couple of years ago and led to it adopting populist animal rights-based policies has spread to Woolworths. By 2018, cage eggs will not be available in Woolworths.
Coles has been pretending for quite a while that its agenda is consumer friendly, while being careful to avoid repeating the lies of the animal rights lobby. It makes a big deal about not selling beef from cattle that have been treated with hormone growth promotants, for example, but never suggests there is anything harmful about them.
Naturally it also never divulges that beef sold in Coles is inherently more expensive to produce. Just mention the word ‘hormone’ and let the vibe do the rest.
Recently Coles announced it would be phasing out cage eggs from its home brand range but would continue to sell cage eggs under supplier brands. This was also based on the company’s notions of consumer friendliness (OK, mainly UK consumers), but it was not such a big deal because there was still a choice. If you wanted to buy cage eggs, you could.
Woolworths is planning to go further, only selling eggs that are barn laid or free range. It has also committed to no longer using cage eggs as an ingredient in its home brand products. Consumers are to be told, not asked.
The only justification by Woolworths for this is ‘animal welfare’, again with no further explanation. Just feel the vibe.
In scientific terms, there is no evidence that chickens suffer any more in cages than when they are roaming around. Research undertaken by the University of Sydney shows that hen stress levels are similar across cage, barn and free range environments, with the key determinants of hen welfare being husbandry rather than the system used.
The vibe is merely the projection of human feelings onto animals, a process known as anthropomorphism. It goes, “I wouldn’t like to be in a cage, therefore it follows that hens don’t like it either.” It is false, but that doesn’t mean it can be ignored. Obviously Woolworths thinks it’s a big deal.
But there are a couple of inconvenient facts that perhaps Woolworths has overlooked. One is that non-cage eggs are not as safe as cage eggs. The other is that they are considerably more expensive.
Non-cage chickens are exposed to dirt, faeces and other sources of infection at a vastly greater level than chickens confined in cages, which are kept very clean. Inevitably some of this infection gets transferred to the eggs, either inside or outside the shell, and is passed on to consumers. Bouts of diarrhoea, vomiting and other consequences will inevitably increase.
On the cost side, egg output per hen is a little higher when they are in cages. In addition, the costs of production are quite a lot lower.
Barn and free range egg production requires a big investment in facilities, with many egg producers having recently converted to new, larger cage sizes on which they are still to see a return. And irrespective of the cost, converting cage production systems to barn and free range systems will simply not be possible in some cases. Local councils are often hostile to expansion by chicken farms and demand expensive environmental impact assessments.
In addition, unlike cage production, barn and free range systems are nowhere near optimised. The relationship between shed size and productivity is uncertain, feed optimisation is more difficult due to outside foraging, and the ideal size, location and number of exits between the shed and outside environment are not known. Moreover, there are widely differing views on hen density, as I have previously described. The egg industry is being forced down a path it does not properly understand.
As it stands, barn laid and free range eggs are approximately 40 and 60 per cent more expensive than cage eggs. A major increase in production might lower the gap a little, but cage eggs are already down to 50-60pc of the market. Most of the benefits of scale have already been achieved.
Woolworths’ customers will inevitably end up paying significantly more for eggs as well as home brand products that contain eggs (although perhaps not if they contain imported powdered eggs). Since eggs represent a significant source of protein for many low income families, this suggests Woolworths does not care if it loses their business.
It is not compulsory to purchase eggs from Woolworths and cage eggs will continue to be available in other supermarkets. I expect some Woolworths’ customers will increase their purchases at supermarkets where cheaper cage eggs are still sold.
It will be fascinating to watch the battle between two quite different versions of consumer friendliness – lower prices versus the vibe. Unless it can convince governments to feel the vibe and outlaw cage egg production, I predict Woolworths has backed the wrong horse. David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years and was recently elected to the Senate. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org