The RSPCA has spoken out against the increased density of free-range chickens being proposed by the Australian Egg Corporation today, saying it doesn’t “meet animal welfare standards or consumer expectations.”
Proposed new accreditation standards for free-range eggs aim to drastically increase the density of laying birds. The Greens intend to raise this issue in parliament this week to address animal welfare concerns, but guidance for consumers remains unaddressed.
Little is known about how and why consumers make purchases in this area, but what we do know is that people tend to misread branding cues. So the question now is whether the new standards will merely add more confusion to an already cluttered egg market.
Eggs are a food category where we have a plethora of choice, including options such as “free range”, “barn laid”, “certified organic” and “Omega 3”. While consumers often express a desire for variety, the reality is that most of us are baffled by all this choice.
The European Union has strict standards when it comes to what constitutes free range and certified organic eggs. But in Australia, standards exist for certified organic eggs but not for free range.
Currently, some free-range brands are accredited under the Free Range Poultry Association of Australia (FRPAA) and the Free Range Farmers Association. These associations have clear free-range egg standards, but they don’t apply to all the brands on the egg market.
The current poultry standard followed by the Australian Egg Corporation is based on the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals and recommends that hens are stocked at a rate of 1500 birds per hectare. But the new standard they are supporting would increase this number to 20,000 per hectare. This is a significant change and substantially greater than the density standards set by other industry bodies.
Leaving aside issues of animal welfare (although we would argue that these are significant), what will the impact of this new standard be on consumers?
For those who already seek out free-range eggs, confusion exists about the difference between the various offerings. In a qualitative study from 2010, consumers exhibited confusion over organic versus free-range eggs, often conflating the two.
Add in the other options and it becomes not unusual to hear people expressing confusion over which eggs they should be purchasing if they’re concerned about animal welfare.
This confusion also translates to the purchase of chickens, with study participants claiming they have purchased organic chicken when they have, in fact, bought free-range chicken. This mistake is the result of branding and advertising material.
When prompted, the people in the latter study described the labels on their chicken, revealing that images, such as rolling green hills, give the impression that a product is organic. But the brand they described only sold free-range chicken, not certified organic as they believed.
It’s apparent that people make assumptions about chicken based on label imagery. Nowhere did the label state that the chicken was organic. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see this confusion translate to the egg market.
These sorts of mistakes happen because we take short cuts in assessing cues, such as labels. Most people don’t have the time, energy or inclination to carefully evaluate every product, label or buying situation so we utilise schemas, usually unconsciously.
Schemas are mental structures that help us organise some aspect of the world. They act as a short cut for us to categorise information so that, when we’re presented with new information, we can slot it into our existing schema or reorganise the schema to fit the new information.
In most cases, this saves us time and isn’t part of a conscious process. It’s likely that in the studies discussed above, the participants were relying on schemas.
People will always make assumptions about food and the retail outlets where they buy it. Most people are unable or unwilling to devote the time to explore every piece of relevant information to check if their perceptions are accurate.
The parliamentary debate by the Greens and the new free-range standards may end up providing more information and, possibly, more variety. While animal welfare may benefit, consumers’ ability to support this may not be so easy.
It remains to be seen whether new standards will add confusion or clarity to the already cluttered egg marketplace.