Actions speak louder than words


Do you support the banning of cage eggs? Yes! So you buy free-range eggs, right?

Gone are the days when everyone had a chicken or two in the backyard, laying fresh eggs daily. Back when you could swap your excess eggs for a slice of Mrs Smith’s chocolate cake. Gone are the days……

Nowadays mass production of goods is the way. The key to success is maximum output, minimal costs and optimum efficiencies. Mass food production is no exception. There is a well known market failure in the food production system, animal welfare, in particular farm animal welfare. This poses the question of how much extra are consumers willing to pay to alter legislation and production in the interest of animal welfare. The premium prices paid for free-range eggs, chicken, pork etc can provide a slight indication of consumers’ values and concerns about animal welfare based on their actions. But for those who do not pay the extra, does this mean they do not care about animal welfare?

Or where the food comes from?
Or maybe they are unaware of mass food production systems?
Or do they just prefer to save a couple of dollars, to probably later be spent on a cup of coffee.

A way to determine willingness to pay is the Contingent Valuation method. People are asked to state how much they are willing to pay in relation to a specific hypothetical scenario. This method generates much debate and controversy due to the use of data from what people say they would do, rather than inferring what people would do from observing their actual behaviour. The value determined by this method is considered to be unrealistic, often incorporates ‘warm glow’, ‘part-whole’ response biases and usually overestimates the true value of the matter in question. For example a contingent valuation survey of 2000 people in Great Britain was conducted to establish people’s concern about animal welfare and their willingness to pay to support legislation to phase out the use of cages in egg production in the European Union (EU) by 2005. Respondents were found to include animal welfare in general in their response, finding it difficult to only consider cage-egg production. Understandably, people feel that legislation for one issue may help improve chances for subsequent legislation for another, referred to as ‘whole-part’ bias. Also, a ‘warm-glow’ effect can occur where people feel like their payment is a charitable donation to a worthy cause. These external forces are reflected in the amount people are willing to pay and result in an overstated value toward the specific issue at hand, adding further support to the debate about the contingent valuation method.

When using Contingent Valuation method it is important to debrief the questions and establish the rationality of respondent’s willingness to pay and test for a true reflection of concern. In doing so Bennett (1998) identified a number of potential biases and reasons for overstated values, for example 61% of respondents stated they already purchase free-range eggs, 23% felt their payment was like a charitable donation to a worthy cause and 40% felt their payment was not just for hen welfare but farm animal welfare in general. In 1998 the mean amount respondents were willing to pay extra for a dozen eggs was £0.43, where the current price was £1.40/dozen. Working on a household consuming nine eggs a week, the weekly food bill would increase by £0.32 (AUD $0.49) to improve hen welfare by phasing out cages.  That’s a yearly increase of about AUD $25.00 to the grocery bill, about 6 cups of coffee to improve the welfare of hens laying eggs. The last point Bennett (1998) raises is that the amount consumers are willing to pay to support the legislation is substantially greater

(even potential for higher profits) than the estimated higher costs to produce non-cage eggs. 

Justifiably doubts even exist from the public about this valuation method, for example the level of animal welfare likely to be achieved by way of government legislation. For this reason, broad based questions based on hypothetical scenarios which provide little information on the legislation details further implicate the value people ‘say’ they are willing to pay. Although the Contingent Valuation method suggests the amount people are willing to pay and can be a useful indication of people’s concern about animal welfare, policy-makers view the results with caution due to the underlying uncertainties involved in this method.


So, actions speak louder than words. You buy free-range eggs, right!

Bennett, R 1998, Measuring Public Support for Animal Welfare Legislation: A Case Study of Cage Egg Production. Animal Welfare, 7, 1-10

Posted by Cheryl Day


4 comments so far

  1. Jack Scanlan on

    Thanks for your insightful post. People in general just do not know what they are paying for when they buy animal products from mass production sources. Whether it be pork, chicken or in this case eggs. In fact as an example people just assume that ‘barn’ eggs are much better as far as the animals welfare is concerned than ‘cage’ eggs when in fact some would argue the animals have worse, similar or only slightly better welfare impacts between ‘cage’ and ‘barn’ systems. Under ‘barn systems’ last time I checked there are more chickens per square meter, more competition between the chickens, more pecking of each other, more self mutililation and higher mortality than under ‘cage systems’, of cource there are serious welfare issues concerned with cage eggs. Howver people should have access and actually bother to look at the legislation that govern animal production systems. Actions do speak louder than words and some people act only with words concerning welfare issues not only limited to animal production. The actions of people will influence legislation and once welfare issues are sorted in one area there are other improvements to be made in others. For example if we improved or removed cage and barn systems there would be much work to do on improving the welfare of animals in free range systems as well.

  2. cherylday21 on

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog Jack. Unfortunately the image of free-range chickens out in large open green fields and plenty of sunlight like the Mt Barker chicken ads is not always the case. You are right, in some cases cage free chickens are not actually better off. Also recent charges of egg companies incorrectly labelling cage eggs as cage-free in order to receive higher prices does cause further scepticism from consumers. Calls for truth in labelling have been ongoing for years. The reluctance from industry does make you wonder what they have to hide.
    If this is a topic you are interested in and you haven’t already seen “Food Inc.” I would certainly recommend it.

  3. Ryan Wilson on

    The existence of cage-hens and the low demand for free-range eggs and other free-range products reflects a more general issue in society. There is a large and growing sense of disconnectedness between our life-choices in a western society and how they impact on other living beings and the natural systems that support us. Going to the supermarket to buy food has become such an inconsequential and common activity, that few people make an effort to discover what kind of processes are required to make each product. Though many people would not consciously admit to it, there is a common perception that ‘ignorance is bliss’. Buying an attractively packaged 6-pack of cage-eggs from the supermarket is easy to do; watching a malnourished and highly distressed chicken flap violently around in a tiny cage while it pops out your 6-pack of eggs is arguably not as easy to do.There would most definitely be people that could watch this and take the ensuing eggs home for breakfast with ease, but I would argue that if all people were subjected to this scenario, sales of cage-eggs would plummet.

    This notion can be applied to nearly every product available at a supermarket, whether it be food or non-edible products. There are often processes inherent in the production of goods that result in some sort of negative externality, but it is in the interest of the company to hide this away from consumers. It is up to the consumer to take an active interest in breaking the disconnect between what we buy and where it comes from. If we can’t do this, then animals will continue to be mistreated and serious and irreversible damage will continue to be done to our natural systems.

  4. cherylday21 on

    Yes Ryan you have raised some very good points. Lately (not all the time) I have asked prior to purchasing food where it has come from or if the person serving it (or the person who made it) know what’s in it. I did this lately at a shop where I asked what meat was in the arancini balls and where had it come from. The woman whom I assumed made them became very offended by my questions and was not impressed at all and failed to give me an answer. Yet I felt it was my right to ask and know before I purchased the product. Either she could not or did not want to answer and thought I was somewhat of a pain in the behind for even questioning here. Attitude among manufacturers and food providers most certainly needs to change and transparency is a must. Who knows the true picture of food production may put some off, reduce consumption, encourage a healthier diet and reduce obesity. But that’s a whole other story.

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