Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Hen welfare or PR savvy

Never let it be said that we are a nation of instant gratification seekers, heedlessly rushing to do today what we can put off until tomorrow or 20 years after that.

We make the average procrastinator look impetuous.

We're prepared to wait two decades to make the simple and self-evidently sensible move of raising the super age - a move that may well become necessary before that date. We're going to get around to building a much-needed train link between the centre of Auckland and the airport by around the middle of the century.

And Australian-owned supermarket chain Countdown is promising to phase out certain eggs but not in any hurry. They're going to do it one island at a time because ... well, because they are. The North Island will be "cage-free" by 2024 and the South Island by 2025.

Good on them for not rushing into it and risking a cock-up. (That's the other great thing about poultry - the opportunity to lay on the puns.)

In the past few years a vast number of eggs labelled in ways that sound hen-friendly have appeared on the shelves: organic, bio, natural, uncaged, colony laid, eco and, of course, free range. Most of us don't know exactly what those labels mean.

It's almost certain that some are designed to confuse you. They confused me, whether by design or not.

You didn't need to be the Sherlock Holmes of poultry to have suspected that the sudden appearance of a plethora of free range egg brands seemed to outstrip any likely capacity to provide them. It's a suspicion confirmed by recent revelations that non free range eggs were being sold as such.

Left to their own devices, heritage breeds will live for about 10 years, lay regularly for four of these years and sporadically for a few years more.

Battery hens' lifespan, according to animal welfare troublemakers SAFE, is about 18 months to two years, at which point they are killed. Battery farming will not be illegal until 2033 so at best so it will be the great-great-great-great-granddaughters of today's hens that will benefit from that move. Still - better laid than never.

Manufacturers know consumers want cruelty free products. That's why those whose ingredients include free-range eggs proudly proclaim the fact on the label.

However, this has two opposite effects. One group of customers will buy that product because they can do so with a clear conscience. Another won't because will assume correctly they're paying a premium and will opt for an affordable if ethically compromised product.

But how much of a difference to hen welfare will a move to free-range eggs in cartons make if it's not applied to all those other popular products that contain eggs, including but not limited to prepared mayonnaise, cakes, biscuits, custard, some pasta and noodles, quiches and top of the range icecream. Not to mention whole chickens, chicken pieces, chicken nuggets and chicken pies.

Nor can we exclude pork and pork products from consideration. Sow stalls are being phased out but many questionable practices are maintained. This is practically confirmed by the fact that bacon in particular is packaged with a free range of friendly sounding but confusing labels that make it hard for consumers to make an ethical choice.

So until concerns about cruelty in all animal products are addressed, a move to make all eggs "cage-free" will continue to look less like a commitment to animal welfare and more like a commitment to business-saving PR.

- Herald on Sunday

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