Injurious pecking in free-range laying hens: Consumers are willing to pay eggs-tra to reduce it

Bennett, R. M., Jones, P. J., Nicol, C. J., Tranter, R. B., & Weeks, C. A. (2016). Consumer attitudes to injurious pecking in free-range egg production. Animal Welfare, 25(1), 91-100.

Following news in 2010 of a possible beak trimming ban in laying hens in 2016, efforts were made to design management techniques to reduce the reliance on beak trimming to control injurious pecking (IP) in non-caged systems.

This study contributed to such investigations; giving an insight into the attitudes of consumers towards injurious pecking in free-range egg production, and whether they would be willing to pay more for eggs produced on farms using these management techniques.

IP is a pecking behaviour seen in some flocks of hens

IP is seen in all laying hen rearing systems, but is also highly prevalent in non-cage systems. Studies have shown that 47% of flocks in the UK are experiencing IP of varying severity. IP is a main cause of hen mortality in non-cage systems, and the loss of plumage can be linked to less efficient food conversion. Previous investigations found IP and mortality rates i can be significantly reduced, at a set-up cost of around 5 pence per hen. Once it was established IP could be reduced by management techniques, it was important to investigate consumer attitudes on the issue to establish if consumers would be willing to pay a premium to cover the costs to produce these eggs.

Consumers would pay more to ensure that hens do not suffer

In a survey that was conducted, participants were first provided with information describing IP, and the management techniques that could be adopted to control it. They were asked whether they would be willing to pay a randomly allocated amount of money (between 2 and 16 pence) on top of what they currently pay for half a dozen free-range eggs to prevent hens suffering from injurious pecking. If the respondent was willing to pay the first suggested amount (or bid) the following bid doubled. If they were not willing to pay the first bid, the following bid halved.

The respondents showed a strong belief in the welfare benefits to hens by choosing free-range. The majority of respondents always bought free-range eggs, and 86% believed the welfare for free-range hens is better than that of caged hens. Respondents of the survey were willing to pay an extra 5.6 pence on top of the current price of half a dozen eggs. If the price was increased accordingly, at the time a farmer could make an extra £1.40 per hen. From the previous study the management techniques (to reduce IP) cost 5 pence per hen. This means the increase in egg price more than covers the increase cost of production; meaning it is likely that there is a market for these higher welfare eggs.

This study stresses the urgency of such strategies and better food labelling to improve issues such as IP to prevent consumers losing trust in the benefits of buying higher welfare food. When questioned about IP 64% of respondents indicated they were not aware of this problem in free-range laying hens before taking the survey, and 40% said knowing about IP affects their view of free-range hen welfare.

World Animal Protection’s view

World Animal Protection believes using management techniques over beak trimming is a far more efficient way to reduce IP in free-range laying hens. We also believe that it is important to understand consumer attitudes and knowledge about laying hen welfare.