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The great free-range debate

We've heard arguments that free-range labelling changes are unviable. We disagree.

In high school I loved debating – probably because, as an unsporty person, it was the only form of competition I was any good at. Little did I know how valuable all of that time arguing would be a quarter-century later, when I found myself at CHOICE. Sometimes it feels like all we do is argue with industry – about stronger regulation, better labelling and higher professional standards.

What business groups don't seem to realise is that we are having the same arguments with different industries week in, week out. This means that we get to see the same tricks that they all roll out to try to stymie reform.

One we almost always encounter is the 'evidence war', where lobbyists transform into experts in consumer behaviour. They arm themselves with volumes of research funded by industry, which inevitably shows that consumers don't want to see anything change. There are entire firms that are built on producing such 'independent' research.

Another tactic is the argument that we'll stifle industry and kill Aussie jobs if we require businesses to change their practices. This is common in debates about better product labelling, where the effort involved in making a small change to a label would apparently be prohibitive. This doesn't seem to be a problem when businesses want to change labels for their own marketing.

The other staple in the lobbyist pantry is the argument that if we force business to behave better, this will raise costs, resulting in higher prices for consumers. The suggestion here is that consumers would rather have crappy but cheap products than pay a bit more for a product in which they can have confidence. Naturally, we disagree.

We expect most of these arguments to be out in force as the big end of the egg industry fights against movement towards more reliable labelling of free-range eggs, which is to be considered by consumer affairs ministers early next year. Big Egg already have their own research, which shows consumers accept hens that spend every day inside as "free range". They've claimed changes will make large-scale egg production unviable. And they've said that prices will go up if we have a definition of free range that reflects what consumers believe it means.

We know all of this is untrue. Consumers think that "free range" means that chickens go outside. Many consumers will continue to buy eggs produced on large-scale farms, just as they do now. And our research shows that other consumers are already paying more for eggs labelled free-range that probably aren't.

This whole debate boils down to a simple principle: when you buy something, it should be what it says on the box. People who make a deliberate decision to buy free-range eggs get pretty angry about the idea they can't rely upon this. Consumer affairs ministers will face a decision: will they stand up for accuracy in labelling, or will they cave to pressure from Big Egg? There are no prizes for guessing what we'll be saying!