Why consumers buy cage-free eggs may surprise you

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A new Australian study looking at the motivation behind purchases of free-range and cage-free eggs has found that consumer motivation is not simply driven by concern for the laying hen.

Shoppers selecting these types of eggs may be less concerned by the perceived benefits for hens of these production systems, and more interested in the benefits that they, as consumers, might accrue from eating free-range or cage free-eggs.

Happy hens produce better eggs

The study, conducted by the University of Adelaide, found that consumers choose to buy free-range or cage-free eggs because they believe that they taste better and are of a better quality than eggs from caged layers. And despite participants describing conventional cage production as “cruel,” they did not tend to emphasize welfare reasons as being critical for their purchases.

Instead, participants felt that free-range chickens would be “happier” and that this would produce a better quality product. They were more concerned by the impact that this happiness would have on the quality of the egg rather than on what the laying hen herself might gain from being happy.

The study’s authors argue that consumers are more likely to purchase a food product if it is both ethical and viewed as being of better quality, rather than for ethical reasons alone. They also want to avoid “industrialized” food.

The authors note that the findings suggest that consumers think about animal welfare in a much broader way than previously thought, and in particular they believe that better welfare is connected to a better quality product.

There is often be a wide gap between consumer perception and the realities of food production, but the results of this small survey offer some interesting insights into how this group of consumers think, and how producers might respond.

As more and more egg production becomes cage-free or free-range, these production systems will become standard, making product differentiation all the more difficult. Egg producers will need to emphasize other aspects of their brand if they want to stand out. Happy hens may be the answer, although one egg producer in particular may already have cornered that approach.

Cost still counts

The study also revealed that there were high levels of awareness among participants of cage-free production, testament to the success of those that have campaigned for hen welfare, but lower levels of awareness about other types of livestock farming. Perhaps unsurprisingly, consumers buying cage-free or free-range eggs did not necessarily tend to buy meat with ethical claims, in part because the price difference for eggs is much smaller in comparison than for meat.

The study, which questioned 73 shoppers in focus groups and shopping mall interviews, was carried out as part of a wider project looking at Australians’ understandings of ethical food choices, exploring the frameworks used to make decisions about what food stuffs to purchase, in light of understandings of what makes one type of food “better” than another.

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