Will national free-range egg standards worsen hen welfare?

Published 20150619

On Friday 12th of June, Australian Consumer Affairs Ministers agreed to direct officials to prepare a draft national standard on egg labelling for consideration by Ministers later this year to enhance consumer confidence and certainty around egg labelling. According to the statement, Government officials will consult with affected stakeholders and prepare a cost benefit analysis. While superficially this seems like a good idea, those supporting this move might like to think a little more carefully on the whole issue.

The announcement followed yet another campaign by the consumer association CHOICE to clarify the existing confusion around Australian egg labelling, and to push for better labelling of ‘free-range eggs’. It seems that ‘free range eggs’ are synonymous with ‘happy hens’ which is presumably the expectation of consumers who choose to purchase eggs marketed with a free-range label. 

After a year of research on farm animal welfare science and policies, I can only agree that there is a need of national standards, given the fragmented and confusing state government approaches that currently exist. As a consumer I also do agree that there is a need for confidence and certainty around egg labelling. 

So it seems I should just be jumping up and down with gratitude at the announcement by the Consumer Affairs Ministers. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Responding to some consumer’s desire for better hen welfare by imposing national labelling standards could well have the perverse effect of reducing hen welfare, especially if the agriculture sector and its Ministers are not involved in the process, and if that is the only action taken. Following are some reasons for making this statement:

Free-range doesn’t mean better animal welfare. 
Most research confirms that mortality rates are higher in free range production systems, whether the research was funded by animal welfare NGOs, consumers groups, farm sectors or undertaken independently. It is simply due to the fact that it is easier to control the environment indoors than outdoor where the risks of disease spread are higher. In addition, before human intervention chickens mostly lived in forest or bushland, not on open pastures. So, creating a welfare friendly environment for layer hens doesn’t mean giving them access to an open range, but creating an environment with more opportunities for hens to express a variety of behaviours beneficial for their health and their welfare (such as perching and dust bathing). And when a lot of hens share a space – as is the case in any commercial production setting – thirty years of research confirms that the only way to prevent agression, mortalities and cannibalism is to trim the beaks of those hens. This is, of course, anathema to many animal welfare activists.

National farm animal welfare standards are needed
Last year, the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy was disbanded. It is really unfortunate as it was supposed to start reviewing the model code of practice for the welfare of ‘domestic poultry’. One of the recommendation of my research on Australian farm-animal welfare policies was actually to strengthen this approach, to pass a National Farm Animal Welfare Act and to write consistent animal welfare standards, guided by scientific and ethical considerations. There are many things which can be implemented to improve the health and the welfare of layer hens, and which consumers would really appreciate if they were aware of it. But the national discussion, involving egg producers, independent scientists, NGOs, consumers association has been stalled. 

The label can be changed without improving the welfare of the animal
In the absence of a farm animal welfare Act and national leadership, states will still be able to write their own animal welfare or cruelty free standards. Retailers will have to be cautious about the way they use the word ‘free range’ under the new consumer law. Egg farmers may only need to comply with a ‘density’ standard, irrespective of the condition of the range where the hens are running or any of the other factors that are considered important for hen welfare. 

New Zealand and Europe banned caged eggs, but consumers bore the costs.
Other nations have implemented national standards in response to consumer agitation that aim to improve the welfare of hens. In New Zealand the new Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2012 stipulates, among many other things impacting the day to day welfare of hens, that caged eggs will be phase out by 2022. The national animal welfare advisory committee made this recommendation to the New Zealand Minister for agriculture. In making that recommendation, the committee had to commission an economic impact study. The report arising from that study states as follows;

“An economic analysis of the code’s impact has found that in the long term, farmers will have increased annual costs of between 10 and 14 per cent. The increased costs are likely to be passed on to consumers, meaning that the price of eggs may increase by 10 to 14 percent in the long term.”
In the European Union (EU), the phasing out of caged eggs was agreed in 1999, with an implementation period extending over 12 years. Not surprisingly, the different member states of the EU were entitled to use the Common Agricultural Policies budget to support their producers in the transition. Some nations like Germany are even taking a more proactive approach (see here)

It’s all well and good for consumers and consumers to demand national labelling standards in the mistaken belief that ‘free range’ means happy hens, but this is clearly not necessarily the case. The real concern in relation to this development is that it is Consumer Affairs Ministers making these decisions, rather farmers in conjunction with agricultural ministers, scientists and consumers. 
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