Australia is similar to the US, in that only 2% of our own population still work within the agricultural industry. That is, the industry that produces your food! Our challenge is also that the vast majority of our population live in our big, coastal cities. Together, this means that most of our own population have lost touch with how their food is produced and why it is produced in a certain way.
Late in 2014 the global fast food chain, McDonalds, decided to phase out the use of all caged eggs in preference for 'free range' in their products by 2017. This then led to Subway and others following their lead.
Consumers (& McDonalds!) thought they were doing 'the right thing', helping chickens live better, more 'natural' lives in free range systems rather than in cages. It seems obvious, yet the reality isn't quite as clear.
In Australia all caged chickens already have room to stand, move around, sit, eat and drink and were often in a cage with 2 or 3 chicken 'friends'. Their lives are lived in hygienic, climate controlled sheds. No hot summers and cold winters in there! Food and water is 'on tap'. Diets are balanced and they are well cared for, and as a result, their mortality rate is less than 1%. Even at the end of their egg producing lives, these chickens are feathered and worth money to sell. So how about their 'free range' cousins?
Every commercial free range egg producer I have spoken to explains the need to use antibiotics in the feed to help keep the chickens alive. Their mortality rate is much higher. 'Bullying' amongst the free range birds is a big issue and as a result their lives are more stressful. Supplements are needed to balance their 'free range', natural diets to reduce cannibalism. And of course eggs are laid in less hygienic conditions and so can require 'washing' which removes the protective film on the porous shell, in turn leaving the eggs more exposed to salmonella or other bacteria that then can poison us.
Australian consumers fail to realise that just a few decades ago we actually put chickens into cages to keep them alive! Every chicken in Australia used to lay eggs in a 'free range' system. In fact, some of our Asian neighbours are currently putting their own 'free range' birds into cages right now...for the welfare of the animals.
So have we really got this right? Is the consumer driven pressure of McDonalds, Subway and others actually helping our chickens? Is it co-incidental that there is significantly more profit for Australian supermarkets in selling 'free range' eggs today rather than caged?
I am a farmer, though not of chickens or eggs. However I too am very concerned to provide the best welfare practices possible for all animals. In pursuing this quest together, let's make sure we actually put the chicken before the egg!