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Bird welfare determined by the supermarkets. Is this right?

By Stanley Kaye

One of the main benefits of living in the age of affluent societies is the great choice we as consumers enjoy to choose from the wide variety of products that match our needs and requirements.

So, for example, we can choose to buy environmentally friendly goods or products that haven’t been tested on animals. But despite the wide belief that we are free to choose what to buy, the truth is that we don’t really enjoy such freedom of choice. As it turns out, often those who decide for us what we will eat are the large retail chains.

A recent article  sheds light on how large supermarket chains fulfil an interesting role in “regulating” birds’ welfare.

Two of Australia’s largest retailers (Coles and Woolworth) have decided that all eggs they sell will be non-cage eggs. They also determined the selling price to the public, which presumably fixes the price for the producer. As the two chains together are responsible for a large proportion of Australia’s egg market, this is a form of regulation, which forces producers to follow retailers’ demands if they wish to stay in business.

This reality poses several dilemmas:

  • On the one hand, a supermarket has the ultimate right to decide what products it sells and what standards it requires (assuming they meet or exceed legal regulations). On the other hand, would it not be better that questions such as animal welfare be determined by the democratically elected government supported by experts and scientists rather than by companies driven by the desire to make more profit?
  • Do the supermarket chains really react to consumer preferences or do they determine the preferences through their actions? Perhaps the reason they choose to focus on cage eggs is that it gives them good standing with the green environmental community, whilst the costs are pushed onto producers, who are relatively weak. Retail chains clearly pick their causes carefully. We do not usually hear of supermarkets deciding not to stock sweet drinks and candies because of health implications as it would hit their bottom line in a way that non-cage eggs don’t.
  • Supermarkets are an oligopolistic purchaser forcing smaller egg producers to accept the purchase price they set. By doing this, they squeeze producers’ margins to a minimum. In theory, this is a positive move as they force producers to become more efficient – only the most efficient can survive. Moreover, this is also good for consumers, who benefit from lower prices. At the same time, retail chains can also use their oligopolistic power unfairly. A theoretical example would be to change the requirements demanded from a producer after the producer has invested in equipment that has met previous requirements.

The issue of chicken welfare should be open for public discussion. Awareness of growing conditions of birds is constantly on the rise. We must ask ourselves whether the large chains that make the final decisions on bird welfare are really seeing the big picture or whether they are only doing so to serve their own narrow interests. The decision of whether a country should move to cage-free eggs has implications for bird welfare, allocation of resources, farmer’s livelihoods and possible public health. It should be taken by all stakeholders and not just the marketing executive of a multiple retail unit.

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The writer is a poultry consultant for Agrotop. He has 30 years hands-on experience in poultry farming. He holds an economics degree from Leeds University and an MBA from Heriot Watt University – Scotland.