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 email@example.com