The Free-Range egg delusion is manufactured by producers and retailers to quell the animal welfare concerns of consumers thereby ensuring continued growth and maximum profitability for the egg industry.
The following is a presentation by Griffith University Environmental Law student Chrystal Campbell. who has been undertaking time with B4C as part of her studies.
Development of the new Standard
In 2012 The Australian Egg Corporation applied for a Certification Trade Mark relating to a proposed national egg quality assurance program for ‘free range’ eggs. The ACCC commenced assessment and called upon numerous submissions concerning the production of ‘free range’ eggs under the proposed standard. It became obvious to the ACCC that consumers wanted clear and accurate labelling of eggs and that the Egg Corporations Certification Trade Mark may be misleading and deceptive.
In no uncertain terms the ACCC determined that the application would not be successful and the Australian Egg Corporation withdrew the application. Following this and also due to the growing numbers of litigants concerning the labelling of free range eggs, led to the implementation of the Australian Consumer Law (Free Range Egg Labelling) Information standard.
What is ‘Free Range’ According to the Standard?
The new standard for labelling of free range eggs has attracted heavy criticism from animal lobby groups such as Animals Australia and not-for-profit consumer organisation Choice. They contend that the bar has been set very low for what actually constitutes ‘free range’. Previously the voluntary national code (published by CSIRO) for stocking density was 1,500 per hectare which is in stark contrast to the new maximum density of 10,000 per hectare.
They also attack the ambiguity of the new standard which states that hens should have ‘regular and meaningful’ access to the outdoor range however fail to specify what this actually requires. Choice notes that although the producer must prominently display the stocking density on a sign, there is no requirement that this information be uniformly displayed in a way that would assist consumers to compare the free range egg brands.
Labelling of eggs as ‘free range’ in supermarkets gives many consumers the false assumption that they have the same favourable low-density production attributes of eggs available outside of the supermarket system. The ambiguities reflected in the new standard are also compounded by the proliferation of brands available on supermarket shelves. What many consumers are unaware of is the fact that many of the brands are owned by a select few dominant intensive farming companies involved in both cage and so-called ‘free range’ production.
This fact shatters the justification Australia gave when deciding not to ban cage eggs, by insisting that the choice should be with the consumer and if the demand for cage eggs dwindled so would production. However, as demonstrated how can consumers ‘shop for change’ or ‘vote with their wallets’ when the choice was never made available to them? The choice lays with the supermarket conglomerates who regulate what ‘free range’ is by stocking to create a balance between meeting their business interests and padding the anti-cruelty conscience of the consumer.
Major Retailer and Factory Farmer Argument
The Coles and Egg Corporation argument is that high stocking density combined with intensive production is necessary to ensure that free range egg prices remain within the grasp of most Australians and that stocking densities lower than the prescribed 10,000 would severely impact consumer affordability.
As global per capita egg consumption rises with our exploding population rate means that eggs are big business for these retailers and ensuring the bulk of Australians can afford to buy free range eggs provides greater commercial viability. Therefore, by stocking according to their commercial interests they have effectively and radically lowered consumer expectations for animal welfare in the free range egg industry.
It is also through the lobbying of factory farmers i.e. major corporations which have successfully pressured ministers into lowering the standard for free range eggs. With the manipulation of the definition of free range now reflected in the labelling standard they are both appealing to the consumer animal welfare sentiment while maximizing their intensive farming production leading to greater profit margins.
Why the Free Range Labelling Standard is Ineffective in addressing Animal Welfare
The reality of free range within the meaning of the labelling standard is largely inconsistent with consumers understanding of free range and contributes little if anything to animal welfare. At a stocking density of 10,000 per hectare and size of holes available for access to outside means that most birds remain inside for the most part of their lives.
Free range hens are housed in barns which are often multi-level causing cramping which creates not only physical but also psychological barriers for hens. It is extremely common to have a pecking order and when birds are very cramped inside they either cannot physically access the outside or are too threatened to go past hens that are higher order than them.
High density barn free range systems also have an increased levels of aggression and greater likelihood of beak trimming along with the higher rates of hen suffering and deaths due to feather pecking (to assert social hierarchy), cannibalism and disease. The higher the density the more difficult to care and manage illnesses and injuries.
Further, 10,000 hens per hectare means that the range is stripped bare of vegetation at a rapid rate. Industrial scale ranges commonly fail to provide adequate shelter which leads the hens who do make it to the outside to feel threatened and exposed.
Therefore, the purported benefits to animal welfare in comparison to caged hens is largely insignificant if free range eggs are produced at a high density industrial level. The illusion of the ‘happy hen’ in consumers’ minds is very far-removed from the reality of what constitutes free range in supermarkets.
The manipulation of the ‘free range’ definition set out by the labelling standard as a result of powerful lobbying from producers and retailers ensures that human wants are met at the expense of true animal welfare.
The consumer is under the misconception that they have a ‘choice’ and can make an ethical purchasing decision which will contribute to greater animal welfare. They are distracted from the reality of intensive factory farming by supermarkets and producers and it is the supermarkets that regulate the meaning of free range for consumers. Parker notes that, it is only the ‘ethically competent,’ that is, the educated and those truly interested in animal welfare that are willing to invest the time and money into conducting independent research into finding genuine free range eggs.
Unfortunately, this is not the society in which we currently live with the majority valuing human interest far above that of either the environment or animal welfare (both of which we ultimately depend). This is because we have been socio-culturally conditioned to erroneously believe that it is perfectly acceptable to dominate and exploit that which we can, such as men over women, whites over blacks and humans over non-humans. We were wrong then and we are wrong now and just because the majority share in it, does not make it morally or ethically right.
There is no question that the Australian government (as well as others) should be setting and enforcing higher standards (in particular lowering stocking densities) for intense factory farming as the situation will only worsen with the compounding issue of overpopulation.
However, our anthropocentric mentality together with being shielded from the covert operations of factory farms and the profit that stands to be gained from intensive factory farming provides little possibility that in the foreseeable future, the Australian government will over-ride corporate interests for the welfare of animals. That is, unless significant and overwhelming public pressure persuades them otherwise.
To be clear, my position is that animal agriculture will not be sustainable in the future due to our unrestrained population growth and what is not sustainable eventually stops but that is part of a much larger separate discussion.
By Chrystal Campbell. Environmental Law student, Griffith University.