End the squabbling over free range

Various thin-shelled types are running around like headless chooks over free-range eggs

TO scramble the metaphors, various thin-shelled types are running around like headless chooks over free-range eggs, proclaiming the sky will fall if the law doesn’t tell us all what the term means.

Facts and evidence are as scarce as hen’s teeth, while market forces are disappearing faster than a randy rooster.

The cause is the fact that consumers are increasingly choosing free-range eggs over cage eggs. There are no health, welfare, nutritional or environmental advantages to this. Cage and free-range eggs are no different, although free-range eggs are more likely to be contaminated by chook poo.

The preference is mainly due to the fact that ‘free range’ sounds nicer than being in a cage.

Irrespective of their merits, consumers are entitled to make choices without being deceived. This question has come down to how many hens a farmer may keep in a particular area. Everyone purports to know what deceives consumers, and almost nobody has bothered to ask them.

The range of opinions is substantial. Choice wants no more than 1500 hens per hectare, while the Greens want 750. Coles and Woolworths accept 10,000, but the Australian Egg Corporation (AEC) prefers 20,000.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has quite strong views on the subject and launched legal action against an egg producer in Western Australia who labelled his eggs as free range when the ACCC did not think it legitimate.

Its key concern was that the chickens did not want to go outside.

At a Senate Estimates hearing in June, the chairman of the ACCC, Rod Sims, insisted that: “On most days we think most of the birds should (go outside). Most people would think that 'free range' means the birds are outside of the barn.”

Like a lot of people with strong opinions on this subject, he doesn’t know much about poultry. In fact, a sizeable proportion of hens in free-range situations never venture outside, while many others do not go out on a daily basis. There are good reasons for this: barns are warm and provide food and water, and there are no predators such as foxes and hawks.

Indeed, it is not obvious that a rational chicken would prefer a free-range environment over a cage, if given a choice. The size and type of cages has a far more important influence on bird health than the ability to range freely.

Plumage, fractures, body weight and general physiological state are all of better standard in properly caged birds than free-range counterparts. Caged hens also live longer, due in part to less exposure to predation and natural hazards such as avian flu carried by wild ducks.

Hens are also hierarchical creatures with a pecking order that comes into play in free-range situations. Those at the bottom of the pecking order are absolutely better off in a cage.

Whether or not hens are rational, human rationality is in short supply in the debate about what constitutes free range.

The Australian Egg Corporation’s choice of 20,000 hens per hectare is at least based on something more than an arrogant assumption. The figure was arrived at with the help of consumer market research, in which participants were shown pictures of hens at various densities and invited to indicate which they considered to be compatible with the term 'free range'.

The preference of the supermarkets for 10,000 reflects an attempt to strike a compromise between the AEC’s position and the lobby groups, coupled with a desire to ensure the costs of production do not skyrocket and kill off what has become a very lucrative market.

Those pushing for much lower densities are motivated either by animal rights arguments (not the same as animal welfare) or visions of hens happily wandering in green pastures. There is a very strong anthropomorphic aspect to these; that is, they are based on the question: ‘how would you like to live at that density?’

What they overlook is that it only takes a visit to a sporting event to see that humans choose to congregate at high densities. And when they do, not everyone goes outside for some peace and quiet.

The idea that free range means happily pecking away in green pastures is also a myth, particularly in sunburnt Australia. Even if the pasture is green at first, as it might be during spring, that soon changes when the chickens start scratching (assuming foxes haven’t eaten them).

Concern for consumers is far from the main concern of those pushing for low hen densities. If densities were lowered to 1500 or less, for example, the price of free-range eggs would increase to more than $12 a dozen. Many people who currently buy free-range eggs would stop, and some would undoubtedly reduce their consumption of eggs.

Prompted in large part by the ACCC’s obsession, the States and Territories are negotiating to adopt a common standard for free range, backed by legislation. In other words, politicians and bureaucrats are proposing to agree on what free range means so that consumers don’t need to decide for themselves. This is paternalist and offensive.

Without the interfering ACCC, politicians, and bureaucrats, consumers could continue to decide for themselves if they are being deceived. Producers who want to prove they are not deceptive could print their hen densities on egg cartons, allowing consumers to decide whether $12 per dozen is a reasonable price for something that sounds nice.

For those who suspect ‘free range’ might have lost its original meaning, there are plenty of other nice-sounding terms that might be employed. Semi-free range, for example, may suit those who want a bet each way. And what about ultra-free range, unconfined, spacious or liberated? I suggest they sound equally nice as free range.

But I bet if an egg producer sought to use such terms in today’s environment, it wouldn’t be long before some interfering bureaucrat or politician – convinced he or she is smarter than the average consumer – would want to impose a meaning on everyone else. They just can’t help themselves.

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FarmOnline
David Leyonhjelm

David Leyonhjelm

has worked in agribusiness for 30 years and is a Senator for NSW representing the Liberal Democrats.
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READER COMMENTS

John Newton
8/07/2015 7:03:48 AM

The senator for donkeys is a dab hand at the unsubstantiated claim. And proves yet again he doesn't give a stuff about animal welfare. Have you ever seen de-beaked birds stuffed into cages pecking at each other? As for chicken poo and freen rsnge I seem to recall that chickens once walked the ground and pecked away without a problem – before cages. Now, the real reason why consumers prefer real free range eggs is that they taste better. But hey David, whatever brings the price down, is OK by you.
Qlander
8/07/2015 7:39:56 AM

He he; I'm a 'free range' human yet I find most humans who spend their lives in 'confined' conditions. Tend to panic, if I offer to 'set them free' on my range.
Hebe
8/07/2015 10:00:04 AM

This is a useful page of tables to compare different standards http://www.sustainabletable.org.a u/Hungryforinfo/Free-range-egg-an d-chicken-guide/tabid/113/Default .aspx
Elizabeth
8/07/2015 12:10:21 PM

John Newton - you rightly draw attention to the lack of consideration of animal welfare in this discussion . That stress on laying hens was found , on average , to be no different between all three local production systems ( cage,barn, free range ) is ignored. Stress varies widely in each different system - thus caged hens in some farms show less stress than those in some free range farms. Until the reasons this situation are elucidated, it is futile to quibble about free range . The following article illustrates that point "Fewer hens doesn’t always mean happier hens".
EggHead
8/07/2015 12:45:35 PM

I like the article, it is spot on. By the way, no one de-beaks chickens. The 1,500 stocking density was never chosen or based on animal welfare, it was a guide only for environmental reasons.
The Older I Get ...
8/07/2015 1:40:04 PM

Oh this scientific stuff is uncomfortable. Imagine the science of an issue de-bunking the urban myths of that same issue. That the mortality rate of free range hens is remarkably higher than that of caged hens is just too complicated. How are we ever going to have a proper debate without it being totally sidelined by the science?
barbara
8/07/2015 2:33:16 PM

It's amazing that people like David are so proud of their ignorance. And does that mean David that you think 50 % of Australians who seek higher welfare standards for production animals are idiots. These people not only buy eggs, they also vote. Let's hope they remember your lack of respect for peoples ideals at the polls.
Graham
8/07/2015 2:47:55 PM

Senator Leyonhelms comments are spot on the mark, let the consumer decide, encourage the producers to be transparent regarding densities etc and then keep the mind numbing bureaucrats out of the chicken feed and away from my eggs!
David Harrison
8/07/2015 5:22:30 PM

Free range means NO fences, NO housing, NO supplementary feeding, NO clean water available at all times, NO protection from predators. That certainly doesn't make for a viable business, nor would it satisfy the animal libbers. Keep any animal in an unnatural environment and you will have stress. Consumers want a cheap product, while at the same time want to be seen as animal friendly. However, they don't have any financial input, but expect the farmer to carry the burden. Apparently they can then have a clear conscience when they say they only eat free range eggs, poultry, beef or whatever...
John Newton
9/07/2015 6:42:55 AM

David that is nonsense. Most stste of the srt free range chicken farmers use chicken trators, moving their animals around a circuit from week to week to give them maximum use of the ground feed and to fertilise on the way through. Any chicken farmer who denied his animals water is not worthy of the name. Suggest you read some of Joel lSalatin's books
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Agribuzz with David LeyonhjelmCommentary, news and analysis with agribusiness consultant David Leyonhjelm. Email David at reclaimfreedom@gmail.com

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