They are the most mundane of grocery items, and usually found in the furtherest recesses of supermarkets (alongside the bread and the milk), but eggs are undergoing a consumer-led makeover. This week, grocery chain Woolworths said that it would stop selling eggs from caged chickens by 2018, in part because of a shift in consumer preference for eggs from barn-housed or free-range chickens and also because of growing public concerns about the treatment of caged hens. Rival Coles began a shift from cage eggs last year, announcing it would no longer stock these under its house brand, and would instead carry ''welfare-friendly'' eggs.
Before 2009, Woolworths' home-branded eggs carried no labeling to indicate their provenance, but as consumers started demanding that egg producers demonstrate a stronger commitment to the welfare of their birds, more information began to appear. Today, Woolworths and most of its competitors stock a variety of eggs, all clearly labeled free-range, barn-laid or cage, although the reliability and accuracy of some of these labels is a matter of some dispute.
The phasing out of cage eggs from Woolworths will take four years - in part to allow contracted producers to upgrade infrastructure - but consumers and animal rights groups will nonetheless welcome it. Caged chickens endure a short and hellish life crammed in tiny spaces, unable to fully stretch, and subject to health problems caused by confinement in crowded conditions. They are also culled at regular intervals.
The end result of such intensive farming techniques is, of course, cheap eggs, and since these farms are mostly well out of sight, they are also well out of mind. Given this, and the always strong preference of consumers for the cheapest possible food staples - no matter how problematic or questionable the sourcing and supply of such products - the success of the animal rights groups in turning public opinion against cage eggs is noteworthy.
Though Woolworths and Coles are to be commended, their continued sale of barn-laid eggs raises other questions - not just about their commitment to ethical purchasing policies but also their devotion to encouraging suppliers to adopt more humane farming practices. The "barns'' typically used by major producers are large, often poorly ventilated sheds, and the chickens within are packed so tight that any sudden or loud noise is likely to trigger a panic resulting in mass trampling and suffocation. Some producers subject their birds to prolonged periods of artificial light in order to boost production. In terms of imposing an unnatural existence on chickens, these "barns'' are not far removed from cages.
"Free-range'' is a term much abused by producers looking to cash in on changing consumer preferences. Because governments, industry associations and organisations such as the RSPCA seem unable to agree on what constitutes an acceptable stocking rate for free-range chickens, some producers have crammed in as many as 140,000 birds per hectare. A rate of 10,000 per hectare appears to be the current "accepted'' standard for free-range eggs, though boutique producers claim that 1500 birds per hectare is the maximum acceptable rate. Industry consensus would help clarify matters and eradicate sharp practices, but there is no indication this will happen soon. Retailers should, in the meantime, exercise some initiative and include stocking density on their home-brand egg cartons as well as encouraging their name-brand suppliers to do the same.
Is this desire to be better informed about the welfare of egg-producing chickens likely to spread to other agriculture sectors? There are, after all, many other fresh food items on supermarket shelves that are the result of highly intensive, some would say unnatural, farming techniques. The overcrowding and squalid conditions to be found in some piggeries and cattle feedlots, for example, are of a kind with battery chicken farms, as is the use of food additives and antibiotics.
Retailers are already, to some extent, taking the trouble to better inform customers on the ingredients and additives in their food and how it is farmed. Ultimately, however, consumers must do the heavy lifting, and to be prepared to pay extra, in order to assert their preference for the ethical and humane production of food.