The sky isn't falling

All we are talking about is a feeling by some consumers that “free range” sounds nicer.

WHEN the Queensland government recently amended its animal welfare regulation to allow free range egg farmers to stock up to 10,000 hens per hectare instead of 1500, the hens suffered no harm and both egg consumers and producers benefited.

Nonetheless, you would think the sky had fallen. There was a crescendo of complaints from across the left wing spectrum including the consumer group Choice, which has launched a campaign to introduce a national limit of 1500 hens per hectare.

The change was brought about because Queensland free range egg producers were uncompetitive. Being restricted to 1500 hens per hectare made their costs of production substantially higher than their competitors in the other states. With restrictions on interstate trade prohibited by the constitution, they risked being forced out of business by producers in other states.

Consumers in Queensland are also better off because the price of free range eggs will fall. Local production costs will decline and there will be no need to pay interstate freight.

As for the hens, the evidence is unequivocal that they are perfectly happy at densities several times higher than 10,000 per hectare. Objectors to higher densities base their concerns on assumptions about their own reactions to crowding. Even then, they conveniently ignore the fact that many humans happily tolerate quite high densities provided they have ready access to toilets, beer and hot dogs.

While the market for free range eggs is not yet entirely free, it is getting there. Prior to Queensland’s new limit Coles had introduced a limit of 10,000 hens per hectare for its free range eggs and the code of practice for poultry allows more than 1500 per hectare when they are regularly rotated onto fresh range with fodder cover.

The only outlier is South Australia, where a state code with a limit of 1500 per hectare is under consideration. Apparently it is not intended to be obligatory, although a Greens MP has tabled a bill to make it so.

As it stands, free range egg producers outside Queensland can stock their hens at almost any density they like. But since the marginal cost advantage of densities higher than 10,000 is not enough to make a major difference, they are all pretty much competing on the same basis.

That is exactly as it should be. This is not a matter of consumer safety or health. The eggs from free range hens are identical to those laid by hens in cages. Nor is it a matter of animal welfare. If it was, hens in cages would not lay more eggs than free range hens.

All we are talking about is a feeling by some consumers that “free range” sounds nicer. It is merely a question of personal beliefs and values.

Which brings us back to the campaign to force free range egg producers to stock no more than 1500 hens per hectare. Much of the chattering classes seem to have lined up behind it, and it would not be out of the question for the ACCC to lock in behind them. As I recently discussed it has already taken sides on the matter of broiler stocking densities.

But there is an ethical problem which has nothing to do with hens. If production were to be restricted to 1500 per hectare nationally, the price of free range eggs would increase to $10-12 a dozen. If you are not an egg buyer, that’s over double the current price of free range eggs (and over three times cage eggs).

For the campaigners, all of them prosperous and well educated, that’s no big deal. It would not trouble the readers of Choice or the well paid lawyers at the ACCC. But it would be an issue for the battlers, on welfare or in low paying jobs, to whom cost is an important consideration in their food choices.

What the campaigners are essentially saying is that only those above a certain level of income should have the luxury of paying more to indulge their feelings about egg production. If you don’t have money you needn’t have such feelings, because your betters (ie those with more money) have a monopoly on them.

Then again, perhaps it’s just a sign the campaigners have more money than brains. But that’s just my feeling.

  • David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at
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    David Leyonhjelm

    David Leyonhjelm

    has worked in agribusiness for 30 years and is a Senator for NSW representing the Liberal Democrats.
    Date: Newest first | Oldest first


    5/08/2013 5:36:51 AM

    Free range, organic etc are just a brand. There is nothingi stopping a new brand of less than 1500 per hectare. I always wondered how someone can think like a chicken but after listening and observing they seem to do sound and behave like it.
    5/08/2013 7:21:30 AM

    What an uniformed attempt to sell the intensification of 'free range' egg production for the big boys and supermarkets. Have you forgotten who buys the eggs? How arrogant.
    5/08/2013 10:32:49 AM

    Very Succinct comments there. I have also seen studies proving free range chickens are no happier than cage chickens. Plain and simple, if they were unhappy, production would suffer. Its about time someone puts some facts to the brainwashed activists. Instead of them using expensive advertising campaigns to personify animals as pets perhaps they should use that money to do some good for society. Perhaps use the money to fund research so they can appreciate the situation properly with actual facts.
    5/08/2013 4:12:18 PM

    I'm always amazed with how aggressively some people feel the need to criticise organic and free range. Organic and free range producers should be commended for trying to produce a better quality product.
    5/08/2013 4:16:54 PM

    Tosca, The same people that bought all the $1 a ltr milk. They buy the cheapest no matter how it was laid.
    5/08/2013 4:57:40 PM

    Queensland free range egg producers have been competing very sucessfully for over ten years with a stocking density limit of 1500 hens per hectare.
    Penny Thehen
    5/08/2013 6:32:44 PM

    And I guess the world is flat. When will you drag yourself form the 19th century into the modern world. Last time I shopped I made the decision on what to buy. It included requirements such as environmental concerns, health concerns and animal welfare issues. Now Mr Know it all, I have been farming Free Range chooks for 15 years and what you are supporting does not come close to meeting all 3 of my needs as a consumer, so best climb back into the century before last or crawl back up your cloaca or at the least get with the times. Animals and greed don't go together.xx
    Phil on the farm
    5/08/2013 8:35:06 PM

    Stereotypes like the chattering classes are lazy. If there's real evidence that higher density per hectare does not have animal welfare issues then we need to do a better communication job. At least consumers are trying to find out more about where their food comes from instead helping coles and woolies to drive down prices.
    Jen from the bush
    6/08/2013 6:12:55 AM

    Just label food clearly. If eggs are produced by chooks in cages, then label them as such. If chooks run 1 to the km, label eggs as such, Then consumers can buy what they want and we will have no more nonsense as the sales will dictate what the buyer wants.
    6/08/2013 5:32:58 PM

    i know a poultry farmer for meat,i never believed they were unhappy. then i hear that coles want rspca approved?? i ask my farmer mate. only difference is they have a few little chains hanging off the feed lines, a few square perches and dry litter which all farmers try there best to do anyway!! so another words just a publicity stunt for coles. i have seen the animals in both situations and they are no happier.. absoloute mess if u ask me
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    Agribuzz with David LeyonhjelmCommentary, news and analysis with agribusiness consultant David Leyonhjelm. Email David at


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