ACCORDING to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), ordinary and reasonable consumers expect eggs marketed as free range to be “produced in an environment in which laying birds regularly access an attractive outdoor range and have sufficient space available to move freely and behave naturally indoors and outside".
Moreover, consumers also “expect higher animal welfare practices in free range systems relating to the management of flock size and density as well as preventative management practices (for example, providing opportunities for dust bathing and perching) to alleviate the need for routine beak trimming".
Thus when it comes to routine beak trimming, “which may impact on a bird’s ability to engage in natural behaviours (particularly foraging), is not an animal welfare outcome that consumers would typically associate with free range egg production".
How does the ACCC know all this? That is a very good question for which there is no good answer. As far as I can establish, it made most of it up.
As I have previously discussed, the Australian Egg Corporation (AEC) wants to adopt a new code of practice for egg production that includes free range. It believes this would ensure consumers who prefer to buy eggs labelled as free range will get a product that meets their expectations, which is not always the case now.
The AEC sought the ACCC’s approval to adopt a certification trademark which would require producers to comply with its code if they wish to use the mark. The ACCC’s “initial assessment” of the application was to reject it.
Prior to reaching this decision it received about 1700 submissions - most of them form letters from animal rights activists and those with a vested interest in the status quo - plus two petitions. No effort was made to directly consult consumers and it did not wait for the AEC to submit the results of further consumer research, which it knew was imminent.
This raises an interesting point. Who should the ACCC look to as the voice of consumers? How can it argue it knows what is in the best interests of consumers when its principal source of information about them comes from lobby groups?
Those lobby groups are certainly not representative. Most of them are animal rights activists, predominantly vegetarians plus a good number of vegans who never even eat eggs. In their view it is morally reprehensible under any circumstances to use animals for the benefit of humans.
It would take less than a week for Animals Australia, PETA and the other radical animal rights groups to generate 1700 objections to any proposal involving the commercial use of animals.
Other lobby groups include existing small and organic free range and egg producers who have a strong interest in preventing large scale egg producers from competing in their niche markets, and the group Choice.
While Choice purports to speak for consumers, it is self-appointed and can only legitimately claim to represent consumers who are prosperous, well-educated, inner city types with left-leaning political inclinations. It most certainly does not speak for battlers struggling to make ends meet.
At the heart of the ACCC’s objections to the AEC’s proposal is hen density. The AEC code proposes a maximum of 20,000 hens per hectare, or two per square metre.
On that the ACCC says, “Such high stocking densities appear to reflect an expectation that only a small proportion of birds will access the range and this is inconsistent with consumer expectations of free range egg production systems.”
In other words, whether they want to or not, a majority of hens must spend much of each day out on the range. If many birds do not go outside for a significant proportion of the day, the ACCC considers that the flock cannot accurately be described as free range.
Consumers, it seems to think, require nothing less.
The AEC expects the ACCC to reconsider its position in light of the market research it submitted the day after the ACCC issued its assessment. It says the research was professional, objective and independent, and clear in its conclusions – 20,000 hens per hectare conforms to majority consumer expectations as to the meaning of free range.
I am not so sure. In my experience the ACCC is comprised mainly of lawyers who lack life experience but maintain a know-it-all outlook. It is well known they struggle to understand the meaning of a market, as the Metcash decision clearly showed.
In this instance they appear to have adopted the agenda of the animal rights lobby, as evidenced by the references to beak trimming. This is a totemic issue for the radicals, who insist on perpetuating the myth that only chickens in crowded conditions peck each other, repeated by the ACCC in its assessment.
There is an issue here that warrants the ACCC’s attention though. Demand for free range-labelled eggs is growing significantly, with Coles announcing it will sell nothing else from 2013.
Moreover, there is no agreement as to what it means, with a range of largely unenforceable state-based legislation and voluntary codes resulting in so called free range eggs being produced under all sorts of conditions.
It is not in the interests of consumers to be offered free range eggs produced under conditions that conflict with their expectations. But it is equally not in their interests for the conditions for obtaining free range status to be so severe as to make such eggs unaffordable for all but wealthy ACCC staff and obsessive animal rights lobbyists.
If the ACCC sticks with this assessment in its final determination, the AEC has the option of challenging it in a court. In that event it will be obliged to present evidence to prove it knows what consumers think. I doubt it will have any.
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at email@example.com