The recent unveiling of new reggulations for free range eggs by the federal government has reignited the public debate about cage or free range. The new definition of free range as 10,000 hens per hectare (10,000 sqm) or about 3.1 per queen size bed has also come under fire from Choice and other consumer groups. The RSPCA, Choice and the ACT Government have campaigned for a limit of 1,500 hens per hectare, hen-ce their disdain at this recent announcement.
But aside from the politics and definitions, what is really in a decision between free range, barn laid and caged eggs? Are people that buy caged eggs morally bankrupt? Should we ban caged eggs like they have done in England and other places in the World?
With so many questions why not delve into the ongoing debate between the two so you can justify your next purchase of eggs.
Looking at the raw stats of the two housing environments, a Swedish study “showed a significantly higher occurrence of bacterial and parasitic diseases and cannibalism in laying hens kept in litter-based housing systems and free-range systems than in hens kept in cages (P < 0.001). The occurrence of viral diseases was significantly higher in indoor litter-based housing systems than in cages (P < 0.001).” This study is not alone. These studies (1), (2), (3) and (4) all conclude that outdoor free range systems do have higher risk of disease, parasites and hen mortality.
So then if caged birds are healthier, live longer and are less prone to cannibalism why do people favour free range eggs? Surely if you value the life of an animal then you would buy cage eggs for all the above reasons. Evidently, the answer isn’t as clear cut as it may sound.
Firstly, it’s important to investigate the reasons behind the perhaps surprisingly higher mortality and cannibalism prevalence in free range hens. A larger area in which to roam allows hens to exhibit a greater repertoire of behaviours. Some of these, such as pecking, have a negative effect on others around them. The open soil and harder to clean, more complex areas, mean parasites, bacteria and viruses spread more rapidly. As is often the case, wild animals will not survive as long as their counterparts confined within zoos and clean enclosures.
On the flipside, a larger area to roam means hens are able to do what hens do naturally, exhibiting more positive behavioural attributes or so the research suggests.
So putting this all together, and based on the scientific literature we have today, the debate is more of a philosophical one than a purely right or wrong, morally bankrupt decision or not. The questions really are:
Do we value length and health of an animal’s life over the normality and freedom it has to act on its own instincts? Or are freedom and normality of life the more important factors?
These questions are not up to us to decide for you, but rather something to consider when you purchase eggs at the shop or meat from the butcher. Unfortunately many choices in life are not black and white, just as the ethics in animal production and consumption require us to ask difficult and pertinent questions about our values by which we live.