THE stoush between the egg industry and the animal rights lobby over the meaning of ‘free range’ has ratcheted up a notch, with the RSPCA and Animals Australia launching campaigns against cage eggs and Choice complaining it was excluded from discussions between the industry and NSW government over a new code of practice.
Earlier this year a Greens bill introduced into the NSW parliament sought to impose a legal definition of 750 hens per hectare. The current code allows 1500 or higher if the hens are rotated onto fresh range. The bill got through the Legislative Council but was never presented to the lower house, where the government has the numbers.
Free range eggs now represent about 33 per cent of the total egg market. Quite a few people buy them, either routinely or from time to time, because they believe they are getting a more nutritious product or some other health benefit, or because it just sounds more humane and gentle.
The egg industry is highly responsive to consumer attitudes, whether or not they are soundly based. Just as it responded to the preferences for brown shells and yellow yolks, it has reacted to this issue by supplying eggs labelled as free range. However, very few of these eggs are from hens stocked at 1500 per hectare or less. Quite a lot are from hens stock at more than 20,000 per hectare.
Although Choice purports to speak for consumers, it is self-appointed and can only legitimately claim to represent consumers who are prosperous, well-educated, inner city types with left-leaning political inclinations, like the Greens. It most certainly does not speak for battlers struggling to make ends meet.
The Australian Egg Corporation represents egg producers, including large scale free range producers. Unlike Choice, it has commissioned market research to find out what consumers believe free range means. Rather than quote numbers and try to envisage them in practice, the researchers used videos of hens at various stocking rates.
The research found that consumers expect free range to mean hens are never kept in a cage, are able to scratch in the dirt, dust bathe and peck in the grass, roam the range, and flap their wings outside of a hen house. It also found the overwhelming majority of free range egg consumers thought images of hens stocked at two per square metre (ie 20,000 per hectare) was consistent with the term.
The industry has agreed to adopt a new standard based on that list. It argues that this would ensure consumers who prefer to buy eggs labelled as free range are buying a product that meets their expectations.
It also maintains that such a standard has some scientific basis, citing research conducted by the Scottish Agricultural College which shows that densities greater than two hens per square metre “impose some constraint on free expression of behaviour.”
And in case 20,000 sounds like it is close to the maximum, it also says, “Hen behaviour shows us that between 30% to 60% of hens are outside of the hen house at the same time. Therefore the maximum outside density of 2 hens per square metre will never be realised.”
What Choice never mentions is that this debate is not about the welfare of hens. There is absolutely no scientific basis for preferring 750 or 1500 hens per hectare over 20,000. It is simply anthropomorphism, or assuming chickens are the same as people. That is obviously silly – you could not put people in either a cage or a free range environment, feed them the same diet every day and expect them to reproduce at a high level. Yet that is what hens do. Indeed, they tend to lay just as many eggs in cages as in free range environments.
The ultimate objective of many in the animal rights lobby (including Voiceless, as I have previously discussed) is to convert us all to a vegan diet. But for Choice, the RSPCA and other organisations that care about public credibility, that should not be a consideration. Their priority ought to be affordable food, informed consumers, and animal welfare rather than an agenda based on the supremacy of animal rights.
A free range density of 750 or 1500 hens per hectare would force up egg prices to as much as $12.80 per dozen according to an independent economic assessment for the AEC. (For those who don’t know, cage eggs are around $3 per dozen.) That would make them unaffordable for everyone except prosperous, well-educated, inner city, left leaning Greens voters.
The AEC’s proposed code, by contrast, would ensure eggs remained affordable and consumer expectations were met.
Ultimately it is the individual purchasing decisions of consumers that really matter. Informed consumers spending their own money, not lobbyists, politicians or public servants, should decide what free range means.
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at email@example.com