Most Read Contributor in Australia, September 2016
What exactly is a 'free-range' egg? Ultimately, it is
about a consumer not having to feel guilty about the dozen eggs in
their shopping trolley. So many consumers are affected by images of
hens living in battery cages that a mainstream market (with a sales
premium) now thrives for eggs laid by hens not living most of their
lives in cages or sheds.
However, there is no uniform standard for what free-range means.
If a producer wants to market their eggs as free-range, numerous
industry bodies and animal welfare associations offer their own
accreditations. Some demand a maximum of 1,500 birds per hectare,
while others allow product to be called free-range with 10,000
birds per hectare. There are even pushes to raise this to 20,000
per hectare. This lack of standardisation creates an economic
problem for many producers: the 10,000 per hectare producer has
considerably better efficiencies than the 1,500 producer, but both
can call their product free-range. This translates to a lower shelf
price for the 10,000 per hectare farmer, and since (at least
presently) most consumers in the free-range egg market only look
for the words 'free-range' without delving into the
differences between certifications, the lower priced free-range
product will be treated by consumers as 'ethically
interchangeable' with the higher priced free-range product.
That is, the only relevant market differentiation is price.
To make matters even more interesting, Coles recently announced
that its home-brand eggs can be called free-range where they come
from birds kept at 10,000 per hectare. That creates real pressure
on producers who want to sell to Coles but farm at less that 10,000
per hectare. This has recently seen legislative change. In
Queensland, until a few weeks ago, a State-imposed code defined
free-range as being 1,500 birds per hectare. This has increased to
a maximum of 10,000 per hectare (subject to certain conditions).
The driving purpose behind the change was to prevent Queensland
free-range farmers from being at a State-created disadvantage to
their interstate colleagues who can produce free-range at 10,000
per hectare. In other words, for the Queensland free-range industry
to remain competitive, things needed to change.
However, in another State – South Australia - the
government is looking at going the other way. There is currently
consultation on setting up a voluntary State-backed code to impose
free-range standard of 1,500 per hectare. Not surprisingly, some
producers are already concerned about their government creating a
self-imposed market disadvantage.
This issue is not going anywhere soon. If mainstream consumer
consciousness regards free-range product as desirable, that
consciousness will become concerned to learn that there can be such
a massive difference between one certifier's idea of free-range
and another's. To avoid the erosion of trust in such marketable
concepts as 'free-range' something will need to be done. It
may be that a 'premium free range' product emerges and
secures consumer support. It may be that a national scheme needs to
be set up strictly limiting conditions. In any case, this is one
area where the confluence of ethical, legal, State, economic and
market forces still needs to be properly resolved – keep your
While it is only free range farmers who are affected by these
latest changes it may not be too long before other producers in
other industry sectors face their own 'free range'
dilemmas. It is also possible that challenges may not come just
from legislative change but from demanding consumers. Consumer
awareness and tastes will likely have future impact on how
livestock producers market and care for their product.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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