The media exposed a ‘scandal’ this week that millions of eggs have been sold to discerning consumers as free range, that were actually just repackaged eggs from caged hens. Consumer rights have been breached. False claims have been made. Consumers and the system have been rorted. But the dominant narrative, that this is primarily a betrayal of consumer rights and confidence, misses the point.
What really matters is that millions of hens are treated like industrial producers pumping out eggs in inhumane conditions, but price is a more important factor for most New Zealanders than animal welfare. The issue isn’t just that yet another ‘rogue operator’ has been caught out lying, exploiting consumers’ good intentions. The question isn’t just, how many ‘rogue operators’ does it take until we realise we have a systemic problem. The real point is that we support an industry that keeps hens in tiny cages in the worst case, most common scenario, and that barn and even ‘free range’ hens may never see the sky or have real opportunity to carry out usual behaviours like foraging and bathing in the dust.
New Zealanders consume about a billion eggs a year, and eggs from caged hens make up about 75% of the market. About 5% of laying hens live in barns, and about 19% are what’s vaguely ‘free range’. Organic eggs make up about 1% of egg sales. That means most egg buying New Zealanders don’t care enough or can’t afford to pay more for eggs that support hens’ wellbeing, natural living and freedom.
This week’s scandal has arisen because a major egg supplier was making a conservative estimate of $14,000 extra a week from buying caged hen eggs and repackaging and on-selling the eggs as free range. It’s a breach of faith. An economic lie.
Consumers had been led to believe that by buying free range eggs they really were supporting better quality of life for laying hens. But this week’s revelations have shown that not only is there scope for cynical marketing by unscrupulous egg traders and dealers, but also that loose definitions mean there’s no guarantee of a good life for hens even on ‘free range’ farms, even if you wanted to ‘do the right thing’, by hens and paid more for it. Not only are your eggs not necessarily free range when they’re labelled as such, but your hens are likely to suffer regardless. Even if you think you’re buying free range eggs, you may not be. Free range eggs may come from caged hens, and what is generally classed as free range can come with adverse conditions for hens anyway.
Like with a lot of consumer certification schemes, even the SPCA’s ‘Blue Tick’ accreditation offers less real assurance or quality control than you’d hope. The SPCA advises consumers to buy carefully, because the term ‘free range can be misleading and doesn’t necessarily lead to enhanced animal welfare’. The SPCA endorses barn egg mass production if the farm ‘meets high animal welfare standards’. According to the SPCA, in Blue Tick certified barns, ‘hens roam freely inside, they have perches to roost on and space to stretch their wings. Nesting boxes provide a quiet space for egg laying and there is floor litter for scratching in’. But Rob Darby from the Free Range Egg NZ Association, (FRENZ) says that egg ‘farms’ accredited by the SPCA are often at industrial scale. With 5-10,000 hens in a barn, and given chicken social structure, the animals are unlikely to get outside, there’s likely to be conflict in the pecking order, there’s overstocking, limited space, insufficient housing, disease, stress and fighting, cruel treatment such as beak trimming, and the health and wellbeing of hens is compromised. The SPCA gets a royalty from every ‘Blue tick’ egg sold, which can also undermine the perceived integrity of the scheme.
When responsibility is shared, there’s a greater chance it will be abrogated, and so it is with the latest revelations about egg misrepresentation. MPI says consumer promises such as ‘free range’ should be upheld by the Commerce Commission via the Fair Trading Act and consumer rights. But according to the Commerce Commission, other than the cases where clear acts of fraud occur, there’s no recourse for labeling eggs as free range, even if the hens never actually get outside because of the sheer number of chickens in one place. As Rob Darby from FRENZ says, just because hens have ‘the opportunity’ to range freely, doesn’t mean they can or do.
In reality, most hens in New Zealand are currently kept in cages, not in barns or free ranging. Under duress, the Government has been forced to change the standards of welfare for chickens, so caged laying hens will be prohibited after 2022.
The Egg Producers Federation are looking at implementing a stamp so eggs can be traced back to source, and production methods verified. Our egg demand continues to rise. Our population-scale egg consumption helps drive massive egg production. But industrial mass production isn’t the only way. FRENZ eggs for example come from many small farms rather than few huge ones as in the conventional model. Backyard chickens make great company and create real quality eggs.
But until proper industry standards are created that provide demonstrable quality of life for hens, where common terms like ‘free range’ conform to a consistent definition, and which creates a level playing field and criteria and therefore pricing structure for eggs, most consumers will continue to follow the money and buy the cheapest eggs on the market, irrespective of the life of hens.
The fact that most of the billion eggs produced and sold in New Zealand are generated through the cruel mistreatment and industrial commodification of hens, is a greater issue than that a relatively smaller percentage of them were mislabeled as free range when in fact they were from cages.