Free range ‘debate’ puts the egg before the chicken

By 7 October, 2013 30

chook

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Today’s announcement that Woolworths will phase out the selling of cage eggs seems like pretty good news.

But let’s not get carried away.

The “free range” label on a carton of eggs can mean densities of anywhere up to 20,000 birds per hectare (as opposed to the recommended 1,500), and it’ll be five years before the phase-out is complete. Cage eggs have reportedly declined from 70% to 50% of egg sales since 2009, so the financial grenade Woolworths is selflessly throwing itself onto doesn’t look like it was all that explosive anyway.

Even so, on the face of it it’s a pleasing example of a company acting ethically. Not everyone is likely to be impressed though.

Just a few days earlier, Tom Joyner, writing for Fairfax, suggested that those who buy cage eggs have been unfairly stigmatised:

Seriously, though, apart from the obvious reasons of animal cruelty (unaided by confusing industry regulation), why is there so much stigma around buying cage eggs? They are a lot cheaper and I honestly find they taste little different to their free-range counterparts.

Sure, they’re cruel and all, but they’re so cheap! And just as tasty!

As I’ve pointed out here before, ethics simply doesn’t work like that: you can’t outweigh moral disvalue with any amount of nonmoral value. You don’t get to do something horrible just because it’s convenient, or fun.

Of course, consequentialists, such as utilitarians, might reply that the pleasure of saving money is itself a morally relevant factor. For a utilitarian (and I’m oversimplifying horribly here), we’re morally required to take the course of action that would produce the highest possible net pleasure.

But I’d be amazed if there’s a utilitarian argument that shows the pleasure of saving about 50 cents per 100g outweighs the suffering of cage hens.

The cost of eggs for lower-income earners might be a legitimate issue, but that doesn’t mean we face a stark either/or between protein-starved kids and hens who spend their whole lives wedged into a cage with the floorspace of an A4 sheet of paper.

Joyner goes on to ask:

Why should we so selectively expend moral capital championing a triviality of the poultry industry, when about 1100 deaths in a factory collapse in Dhaka (a disaster like others just waiting to happen) changes little in public discourse on our complicity in the exploitative measures employed by clothing manufacturers in developing countries – do we really care more about chickens than we do Bangladeshis? […] Australians would sooner bicker over the ethical implications of their omelet than they would demand greater transparency from major retailers.

The suffering of battery hens is certainly no “triviality”, but there’s a reasonable concern here. We do often direct our moral attention selectively and inconsistently. Perspective is important, and for beings like us with finite time and resources there may be a case for a sort of “outrage triage.”

But surely as consumers we can care about two things at once here? Conditions on poultry farms and in foreign clothing factories seems like a case where we can walk and chew gum at the same time (actually “fart and chew gum” in LBJ’s original phrase, but the bowlderised version seems to be the one that’s stuck).

It’s true, no doubt, that in our consumer behavior we consistently fail to do that – that our actions suggest we care more about where our eggs come from than where our clothes do – but doesn’t mean we get a free pass on caring about the hens too.

Joyner is hardly the only pundit to indulge in sloppy moral reasoning about nonhuman animals. At the height of the live export controversy last year, another Fairfax columnist, Nicole Flint, complained that in the ABC’s reporting, “Animals are segregated from their true purpose […] animals are food.”

There’s no further argument offered in support of that claim, so it seems Flint is doing one of two things. Either she takes it that it’s simply self-evident that animals exist for the purpose of us eating them, or she’s trying to answer a normative question (“Should we eat animals?”) with a descriptive fact (“We do eat animals!”). Replace “eating animals” with, say, “enslaving orphans” and you’ll see pretty quickly why that argument doesn’t work.

You might think this sort of philosophical analysis is overkill when we’re talking about ephemeral newspaper opinion pieces, piled atop the internet’s remorselessly growing mountain of content (Hey, I can see my house from up here!).

But as Plato has Socrates say in the Republic, “These are no small matters we are discussing, but how we are to live.” Moral reasoning matters, if anything does – and we’ve been doing it for long enough that we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

The problem with articles like Joyner’s and Flint’s isn’t that the positions they defend are wrong, necessarily. It’s that they treat moral reasoning as if we can simply make it up as we go along. They smuggle in controversial assumptions without argument, or reduce questions of ethical value to matters of personal taste. It might make for good clickbait, but it’s poor moral philosophy.

That doesn’t mean every columnist has to memorise Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals before we let them near a keyboard. But as writers, as citizens, and simply as human beings concerned to live well, we need at least some basic familiarity with the concepts and methods of this vital form of philosophy. These are no small matters.

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

[Photo: Flickr/Petarrr!]

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30 Responses to Free range ‘debate’ puts the egg before the chicken
#1
RedDogInCan12:39 pm, 07 Oct 13

do we really care more about chickens than we do Bangladeshis?

Well, they are Australian chickens. And there are 10.5 million Aussie chickens currently locked up in cages, as opposed to only 3.5 million Bangladeshi sweatshop workers working their way out of poverty. Freeing chickens represent much better value for our moral capital.

a pleasing example of a company acting ethically
This is Woolworths we are talking about here, the largest owner of poker machines in the country. One moral decision does not make someone ethical.

#2
Masquara2:49 pm, 07 Oct 13

We can control our egg purchases. And many of us choose free range. We can control our clothing purchases. And many of us choose to avoid the worst of the exploiters.
The difference is more that we can exert political as well as consumer force over cruelty legislation in our own country. Regrettably, we don’t have that sort of direct political influence in Bangladesh.

btw shame on model Miranda Kerr for continuing to be the face of Mango clothing, a company that is continuing to fail its Bangladeshi workers. Another thing we can do is not respond to her pr company’s glossy magazine campaigns.

#3
wildturkeycanoe5:21 pm, 07 Oct 13

All this means is that in the future we won’t be able to buy cheap eggs from Woolies. Instead of $3/dozen, we will have to pay $6/dozen. Coles will soon follow suit and eventually the cheap eggs will be gone, meaning they will be able to charge a higher price as there is no cheaper alternative. Financially a great decision for Woolies but for those who live on tiny grocery budgets it means no more bacon and eggs for brekkie, no more home made cakes and dinner quiches. Very sad.

#4
Pork Hunt6:40 pm, 07 Oct 13

wildturkeycanoe said :

All this means is that in the future we won’t be able to buy cheap eggs from Woolies. Instead of $3/dozen, we will have to pay $6/dozen. Coles will soon follow suit and eventually the cheap eggs will be gone, meaning they will be able to charge a higher price as there is no cheaper alternative. Financially a great decision for Woolies but for those who live on tiny grocery budgets it means no more bacon and eggs for brekkie, no more home made cakes and dinner quiches. Very sad.

So the price of eggs has never gone up previously in the history of the world?

#5
Felix the Cat7:21 pm, 07 Oct 13

wildturkeycanoe said :

All this means is that in the future we won’t be able to buy cheap eggs from Woolies. Instead of $3/dozen, we will have to pay $6/dozen. Coles will soon follow suit and eventually the cheap eggs will be gone, meaning they will be able to charge a higher price as there is no cheaper alternative. Financially a great decision for Woolies but for those who live on tiny grocery budgets it means no more bacon and eggs for brekkie, no more home made cakes and dinner quiches. Very sad.

How many eggs do you go through a week? $3 or even $6 if you used 2 dozen a week isn’t really very much money. One or two less takeaway coffees per week.

#6
wildturkeycanoe9:54 pm, 07 Oct 13

I haven’t spent a cent on eggs since we got our own chickens. Instead of spending money on eggs, we have a full 2 or 3 cartons in our fridge every week, occasionally having to give some away. Total cost apart from original outlay is about $15 every 6 weeks for feed. The rest is just scraps from breakfast and dinner plus bugs from the backyard. Best thing we ever did. And to top all that off, the eggs are so big we can’t even fit them in standard cartons, our largest to date weighed 87 grams!
I am in my previous comment just looking after the interests of those who might go through a carton or so a week, which would hit some families to some extent if an increase of double in the next few years happens due to this kind of thinking.
Hypothetically – what if the big fuel companies do an environmentally friendly option due to public pressure and buy some kind of fuel that cost twice as much as now but not give us the choice of purchasing the existing “cheaper” alternative? It would be an outrage. Just because eggs are only a few dollars a dozen, you might not think it a major issue, but some people struggling to survive just might consider it to be. If it were coffee, beer, milk, bread or any other necessity of life I’m sure there would be some noise over the decision. $6 per week for one item might not seem so much for you, but for a pensioner, unemployed worker or any others in strugglesville, it will be a lot.
Honestly, the 21-28 eggs we get each week has well and truly paid the initial cost of our own free-range hens + the yolks are so yellow they are almost fluorescent. I won’t consider this move to affect us in the slightest, but if it was milk or bread that doubled in price for the same reason, I’d be voicing my opinion a lot more.

#7
nothappyjan2:13 am, 08 Oct 13

Good news for Aldi and Coles I suppose. But really who gives a toss about the chickens, if people actually cared that much they’d be vegans, luckily most ppl are not that stupid. Just give me my cheap eggs, and preferably in a free biodegradable bag!

#8
BimboGeek7:32 am, 08 Oct 13

I’ve been through this on facebook already too. Here’s a summary of what we concluded in that little argument… Tell me if I’m wrong!

We rely heavily on meat and eggs for our protein but these are the most expensive and cruel sources. I grew up not rich so mum bought the cheapest cuts of meat which were barely palateable and we had plenty of space for chickens and geese so we were able to have fresh free range eggs whenever we wanted. So these expensive foods aren’t even necessarily any fun to eat anyway.

My husband also grew up not rich but his mother’s traditional cooking styles included lots of beans and lentils. He grew up into a big strong man and could have been a professional athlete or bodybuilder had he chosen, on a diet that certainly didn’t exclude meat and eggs but didn’t emphasise them heavily either.

So now the cuisine of his country (the cheaper and healthier stuff) is considered an exotic occasional treat and the stuff I grew up on is what we are trying to live on as a staple diet. I think Socrates had something to say about that as well. He observed that there is enough for us to all live well… Unless we decide to eat meat at which point we start fighting over land. In Australia economic pressures are expressed slightly differently and we don’t go to war over the household budget but the same basic motivation is observed.

So if you can’t afford the true price of meat and eggs, feel free to join those of us who gave them up altogether, or maybe just steal some of our recipes for use as a treat.

#9
cring8:51 am, 08 Oct 13

To add to this article, moral reasoning is also diluted by misconceptions being peddled as, “facts,” for the sake of a quick sale. People get defensive when confronted with a truth they will not swallow; not defensive over what they perceive as the truth, but defending the comfortable, easy way to the point that defending exerts more energy than adjusting. Particularly in the animal industry, the root cause of the issue is usually the person’s attitude when it comes to the responsibility of the animal for which they exercised the concious decision to be responsible. This is when the easy way of caring for the animal at the expense of the animal’s wellbeing becomes misconception peddled into fact – making up moral reasoning over what is the animal’s optimal standard of living for its wellbeing to align with the person’s lack of willing to exert the bare minimum effort into caring for it.

An example? Think about how most fighting fish/betta splendens are kept and sold in your local chain pet stores. Then, Google about how their optimal keeping conditions, and where their origins from wild bettas.

#10
enrique8:52 am, 08 Oct 13

wildturkeycanoe said :

All this means is that in the future we won’t be able to buy cheap eggs from Woolies. Instead of $3/dozen, we will have to pay $6/dozen. Coles will soon follow suit and eventually the cheap eggs will be gone, meaning they will be able to charge a higher price as there is no cheaper alternative. Financially a great decision for Woolies but for those who live on tiny grocery budgets it means no more bacon and eggs for brekkie, no more home made cakes and dinner quiches. Very sad.

It’s so funny that you’re acting just like chicken little in a discussion about chooks! :-)

#11
Jethro9:14 am, 08 Oct 13

nothappyjan said :

But really who gives a toss about the chickens?

The more fitting question is who is so stingy that their saving $2 or $3 a week is more important than protecting the welfare of a sentient animal that shouldn’t spend it’s entire life locked in a tiny cage.

#12
Grail11:14 am, 08 Oct 13

Banning or refusing to support the worst transgressions is a step in the right direction. Sure, we now get to argue what “free range” really means. That we are having this argument means the chickens are already being treated better than they were.

A traditional Canberran quarter acre backyard is about enough room to keep four to eight chickens very happy, depending on vegetation. A free range farm that let’s chooks out into grassed fields isn’t going to keep their birds as happy and comfortable as a farm that let’s their birds out into wooded areas with plenty of undergrowth. This is easily verifiable: allow birds to free-range between field and forest, the birds will gravitate towards the forest simply because there is more stuff there to capture their attention, and more places to hide.

There are many blogs out there from people raising their own chooks for eggs and meat. It really is worth the effort of looking them up!

Chickens are awesome pets, as long as you understand that allowing them to free range means that the garden is theirs and will be shaped by their will :)

#13
poetix11:20 am, 08 Oct 13

nothappyjan said :

Good news for Aldi and Coles I suppose. But really who gives a toss about the chickens, if people actually cared that much they’d be vegans, luckily most ppl are not that stupid. Just give me my cheap eggs, and preferably in a free biodegradable bag!

Some people will do anything for a Plato of eggs. Or more accurately, a non-Plato. My pun escaped the coop of my reason there.

#14
nothappyjan12:05 pm, 08 Oct 13

Jethro said :

nothappyjan said :

But really who gives a toss about the chickens?

The more fitting question is who is so stingy that their saving $2 or $3 a week is more important than protecting the welfare of a sentient animal that shouldn’t spend it’s entire life locked in a tiny cage.

Wow, some ppl truly think that paying more will make a difference to something that is probably a little more widespread than your local Woolies in Aus.

I guess it’s true that some ppl really do have more dollars than sense.

Anyway, I guess you’ll feel much better knowing that every extra dollar spent will go towards a unicorn breeding programme that will fill the empty spaces left by the abandoned chicken cages… bugger how much room do unicorns need again?

#15
neanderthalsis12:09 pm, 08 Oct 13

wildturkeycanoe said :

All this means is that in the future we won’t be able to buy cheap eggs from Woolies. Instead of $3/dozen, we will have to pay $6/dozen. Coles will soon follow suit and eventually the cheap eggs will be gone, meaning they will be able to charge a higher price as there is no cheaper alternative. Financially a great decision for Woolies but for those who live on tiny grocery budgets it means no more bacon and eggs for brekkie, no more home made cakes and dinner quiches. Very sad.

Hopefully we will also ban sow stalls and put an end to the purchase of cheap, heavily subsidised pork raised in factory farms in Europe that currently makes up a sizable portion of our small goods industry in Australia.

Looks like it is vegemite on toast for your breakkie hereafter.

#16
Jethro12:40 pm, 08 Oct 13

nothappyjan said :

Jethro said :

nothappyjan said :

But really who gives a toss about the chickens?

The more fitting question is who is so stingy that their saving $2 or $3 a week is more important than protecting the welfare of a sentient animal that shouldn’t spend it’s entire life locked in a tiny cage.

Wow, some ppl truly think that paying more will make a difference to something that is probably a little more widespread than your local Woolies in Aus.

I guess it’s true that some ppl really do have more dollars than sense.

Anyway, I guess you’ll feel much better knowing that every extra dollar spent will go towards a unicorn breeding programme that will fill the empty spaces left by the abandoned chicken cages… bugger how much room do unicorns need again?

I don’t have the stats on me, but assuming Woolies controls 25-30% of the Australian egg market and considering that its position as a food retail duplo list means that food suppliers tend to have to conform to its demands regarding the conditions upon which it will purchase the suppliers’ products, than yes, Woolies’ decision to not stock cage eggs will see a significant reduction in the number of chickens kept in cages in Australia.

No, it’s not going to stop it altogether, but it is a very big step in the direction of getting caged egg production completely removed from this country.

As for the rest of your comment, are you a moron or just being obtuse?

#17
Alderney1:11 pm, 08 Oct 13

neanderthalsis said :

wildturkeycanoe said :

All this means is that in the future we won’t be able to buy cheap eggs from Woolies. Instead of $3/dozen, we will have to pay $6/dozen. Coles will soon follow suit and eventually the cheap eggs will be gone, meaning they will be able to charge a higher price as there is no cheaper alternative. Financially a great decision for Woolies but for those who live on tiny grocery budgets it means no more bacon and eggs for brekkie, no more home made cakes and dinner quiches. Very sad.

Hopefully we will also ban sow stalls and put an end to the purchase of cheap, heavily subsidised pork raised in factory farms in Europe that currently makes up a sizable portion of our small goods industry in Australia.

Looks like it is vegemite on toast for your breakkie hereafter.

You mean, all the farmland isn’t producing grain for ethanol to blend with benzine?

Woo hoo, we can eat bread again.

#18
neanderthalsis1:28 pm, 08 Oct 13

Alderney said :

neanderthalsis said :

wildturkeycanoe said :

All this means is that in the future we won’t be able to buy cheap eggs from Woolies. Instead of $3/dozen, we will have to pay $6/dozen. Coles will soon follow suit and eventually the cheap eggs will be gone, meaning they will be able to charge a higher price as there is no cheaper alternative. Financially a great decision for Woolies but for those who live on tiny grocery budgets it means no more bacon and eggs for brekkie, no more home made cakes and dinner quiches. Very sad.

Hopefully we will also ban sow stalls and put an end to the purchase of cheap, heavily subsidised pork raised in factory farms in Europe that currently makes up a sizable portion of our small goods industry in Australia.

Looks like it is vegemite on toast for your breakkie hereafter.

You mean, all the farmland isn’t producing grain for ethanol to blend with benzine?

Woo hoo, we can eat bread again.

The bread needs to be an organic, free trade, carbon neutral chia, hand ground by disadvantaged & disabled women in Uganda. It also can’t have too many food miles. Oh, and vegemite is owned by a multinational corporation, so it is off the menu too.

#19
incredulousandridicu1:30 pm, 08 Oct 13

For all this focus on chickens’ welfare, what are we doing about the plight of unwanted pets? I imagine the RSPCA is euthanising countless thousands of stray and abandoned cats and dogs every year. Something has to be done to reduce abandonment or even enforced microchipping so that abandonment comes back to haunt the former owners.

#20
astrojax2:34 pm, 08 Oct 13

it’s ok to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.

#21
Aeek3:25 pm, 08 Oct 13

astrojax said :

it’s ok to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.

so why don’t we eat cyclists ?

#22
johnboy3:26 pm, 08 Oct 13

You can’t catch us.

#23
Pitchka3:34 pm, 08 Oct 13

Aeek said :

astrojax said :

it’s ok to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.

so why don’t we eat cyclists ?

They use them for dog food, not fit for human consumption…

#24
poetix3:34 pm, 08 Oct 13

astrojax said :

it’s ok to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.

That is not true:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pain_in_fish

#25
Stevian3:34 pm, 08 Oct 13

astrojax said :

it’s ok to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.

By that reasoning, It would be okay to eat you

#26
bigfeet5:33 pm, 08 Oct 13

Jethro said :

I don’t have the stats on me, but assuming Woolies controls 25-30% of the Australian egg market and considering that its position as a food retail duplo list means that food suppliers tend to have to conform to its demands regarding the conditions upon which it will purchase the suppliers’ products,

This is just an assumption, but I would think that the ‘home use’ of eggs, like those sold by Coles/Woolworths, would be quite a low percentage of the overall egg market.

Surely it would be commercial use? Bakeries doing a thousand tonnes of packaged cake’s a week, thousands of liters of batter mix? That sort of thing. I imagine that would dwarf home use.

But you have to start somewhere, and the home is as good a place as any to start.

#27
milkman7:41 pm, 08 Oct 13

johnboy said :

You can’t catch us.

Your belief partly explains why cyclists periodically ride out in front of cars seemingly without fear or concern for their own safety.

#28
MrBigEars7:54 pm, 08 Oct 13

astrojax said :

it’s ok to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.

Better than grass and drippings from the ceiling.

#29
Jethro9:20 pm, 08 Oct 13

bigfeet said :

Jethro said :

I don’t have the stats on me, but assuming Woolies controls 25-30% of the Australian egg market and considering that its position as a food retail duplo list means that food suppliers tend to have to conform to its demands regarding the conditions upon which it will purchase the suppliers’ products,

This is just an assumption, but I would think that the ‘home use’ of eggs, like those sold by Coles/Woolworths, would be quite a low percentage of the overall egg market.

Surely it would be commercial use? Bakeries doing a thousand tonnes of packaged cake’s a week, thousands of liters of batter mix? That sort of thing. I imagine that would dwarf home use.

But you have to start somewhere, and the home is as good a place as any to start.

Fair enough. I hadn’t considered commercial use.

That being said, I still think Woolies is a big enough player that it will have an impact, and hopefully lead to further changes down the track.

#30
nothappyjan11:19 pm, 08 Oct 13

Jethro said :

nothappyjan said :

Jethro said :

nothappyjan said :

But really who gives a toss about the chickens?

The more fitting question is who is so stingy that their saving $2 or $3 a week is more important than protecting the welfare of a sentient animal that shouldn’t spend it’s entire life locked in a tiny cage.

Wow, some ppl truly think that paying more will make a difference to something that is probably a little more widespread than your local Woolies in Aus.

I guess it’s true that some ppl really do have more dollars than sense.

Anyway, I guess you’ll feel much better knowing that every extra dollar spent will go towards a unicorn breeding programme that will fill the empty spaces left by the abandoned chicken cages… bugger how much room do unicorns need again?

I don’t have the stats on me, but assuming Woolies controls 25-30% of the Australian egg market and considering that its position as a food retail duplo list means that food suppliers tend to have to conform to its demands regarding the conditions upon which it will purchase the suppliers’ products, than yes, Woolies’ decision to not stock cage eggs will see a significant reduction in the number of chickens kept in cages in Australia.

No, it’s not going to stop it altogether, but it is a very big step in the direction of getting caged egg production completely removed from this country.

As for the rest of your comment, are you a moron or just being obtuse?

Paying an additional premium in the misguided belief that you are making any difference whatsoever is generally known as a ‘moron tax’. So good on you for putting your wallet where your brain certainly isn’t. BTW ACTEW have GreenChoice where can also pay much more for exactly the same thing too!

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