Ethical shopping: Pigs' and chooks' freedom will show on bill

By Andrew Laxon

Free-range hens are often farmed on an industrial scale with 10,000 or more egg-layers.
Photo / APN
Free-range hens are often farmed on an industrial scale with 10,000 or more egg-layers. Photo / APN

In the third of a five-part series, Andrew Laxon looks at changes on the farm

The price of goodness: Free range

What is free range?
It's supposed to mean animals that can roam freely, without being confined in cages. The term usually applies to hens and pigs or, as consumers experience them - eggs, chicken, bacon and pork.

Most hens are kept in small battery cages, which don't allow them to flap their wings or show other natural behaviour. Many female pigs spend much of their adult lives pregnant in sow stalls, small cages which allow them no room to move.

Animal welfare campaigners have lobbied furiously to ban both practices around the world, with some success.

The European Union has banned caged eggs from the start of this year and is phasing out sow stalls.

New Zealand will ban sow stalls by 2015 and the Government is considering a plan to replace the current battery-style cages with bigger "enriched" cages for hens by an unspecified date.

Will bigger cages solve the problem?
No, say animal welfare activists. The proposed change would increase a laying hen's minimum living space from 550sq cm (slightly smaller than a piece of A4 paper) to 750sq cm (slightly bigger than the piece of A4). Egg producers say the enriched cages have perches and scratching areas and allow hens to stand erect and spread their wings. Egg farmers want a 20-year changeover, saying the upgrade will cost $150 million for the $280 million-a-year industry.

Does that mean I'll pay more for eggs?
Yes, but there's still argument about how much. Free-range eggs can cost about $7 a dozen, compared with about $3.50 for regular or "caged" eggs. A rough estimate for the new system is up to $5 a dozen, based on the maximum an Egg Producers Federation survey in 2010 found its regular customers were willing to pay. The survey found one third of shoppers said the way hens were housed affected their egg-buying choice. Another third said it had some effect but other considerations were more important and a third said it had no effect at all.

Are most people prepared to pay more?
The survey found 22 per cent of high-volume egg buyers opposed any price rise but a significant minority are already paying extra. Free-range eggs have gone from almost nothing a decade ago to about 10 per cent of all sales and 15 per cent of supermarket sales. The two big supermarket chains say there is a growing interest in free-range pork and chicken - enough for Countdown owner Progressive Enterprises to introduce its own Macro home brand of free-range chicken in 2010. Activists and the food industry agree the overwhelming reason for the rise of free range has been shocking television exposes of how hens and pigs suffer under current methods.

Can I trust the free-range label?
If you think your free-range eggs were laid by hens foraging in lush pastures, you could be disappointed. There are no rules limiting the size of outdoor areas or the number of hens, so some (probably most) free-range eggs on the market come from industrial-scale operations farming 10,000 hens or more.

Several organisations which certify free-range eggs set flock limits and animal welfare criteria, but you'll need to do your homework before going shopping, as they all have different standards.

What will happen to bacon and pork?
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says banning sow stalls will drive some pig farmers out of business and push up pork prices about 4.5 per cent.

The local pork industry, which says the change will cost $20 million, is particularly nervous because it also faces competition from fresh pork imports, previously banned because of concerns over the risk of disease.

- NZ Herald

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