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.