Taste trumps animal welfare for free range egg consumers

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Australian consumers who buy free range eggs are more likely to do so because they believe the eggs taste good than because they are concerned about animal welfare, according to new research.

In a paper published today in the international journal Anthrozoös, researchers from the University of Adelaide’s Food Values Research Group have found that taste and quality of eggs rank high in people’s considerations for purchasing eggs with ethical production claims.

To better understand the reasons why people make ethical food choices, researchers conducted interviews at shopping malls and ran focus groups to find out about their food purchasing habits.

“People who said they bought free-range eggs readily told us that they thought the eggs were of better quality, more nutritious, and safer to eat,” says lead author Dr Heather Bray, from the University of Adelaide’s School of Humanities.

“Consumers saw free-range as more ‘natural’ for the chickens – so the eggs were ‘naturally’ better.

“These findings are in many ways unexpected, because we thought that the welfare of chickens would be the first reason people would give for purchasing free-range eggs,” Dr Bray says.

Despite some participants describing caged-egg production as “cruel”, they did not tend to emphasise welfare reasons as critical for their purchase of free-range eggs. Instead, participants felt that the free-range chickens were “happier”, ate a more “natural” diet, and thus produced a better quality of product.

“These findings help us to better understand the complex issues involved in making ethical food choices,” Dr Bray says.

“Our research suggests that consumers are more likely to purchase a food product if it’s both ‘ethical’ and viewed as being of better quality, rather than for ethical reasons alone. Consumers think about animal welfare in a much broader context – they believe that better welfare is connected to a better product.”

The study also revealed high levels of awareness among participants of caged-egg production compared with other types of animal farming. Participants were more likely to buy free-range or cage-free eggs compared with meat that is marketed as being produced ethically, in part because the price difference is much smaller in eggs.

“Taste and quality are strong motivations for purchasing and may be part of the reason why people are prepared to pay a higher price,” Dr Bray says.

The researchers say more studies are needed to better understand consumer motivations behind purchasing products with ethical production claims, in order to explore whether changes in production methods or labelling would be supported by consumers.