*Compassion, by the Pound*

That is the new book by F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk, and the subtitle is The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare.  A few facts:

1. From survey evidence, “Food prices” get an “importance score” of %5.06, while “Well-being of farm animals” gets an importance score of %4.15 (p.192).  That’s almost on a par.

2. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe that housing chickens in cages is not humane (p.344).

3. The market share of cage-free eggs has never exceeded two percent (p.261).

I am delighted to see this book out.  This is one of the most shamefully neglected topics in all of economics.  Let’s hope it receives the attention it deserves.


Survey evidence is pretty-much worthless in questions like this. Who cares what some some ignorant slob with no stake in the game, expressing an emotional opinion consciously or unconsciously aimed at persuading his/her interviewer that the slob is a cuddly sort, thinks specialists in some distant business ought to do?

I prefer the "revealed preferences" analysis. Since people won't pay for "cage free" eggs, they don't really want them at the price they command, no matter what schmaltzy stories they tell cute young surveyors.

I prefer revealed preference as well. Caged hens lay eggs every 20 hours or so, while true free range/free pasture/run around the house hens lay eggs about every 50-60 hours. Stress levels for all animals are reflected in fertility; those less stressed are more fertile. Chickens are actually less stressed in cages. (And yes, this is controlling for covariates.) There is simply much more stress on the animals when they roam.

I can guess most other comments after Piper's will be pointless. Well said.

Not exactly. Asymmetric information isn't just a problem in medicine, whatever PK says.

@Piper: but what if the revealed preferences simply reflect a lack of information? It's at least possible that people would make different choices if they knew more about the welfare of the animals in question.
In any case 'cage free' is hardly some animal nirvana; it usually just means that the chickens are free to run around some large warehouse-like space. There exists a whole spectrum animal husbandry practices which in the case of chickens runs from caged to cage free to free range to pastured; advocates of the latter will also claim better quality eggs and meat quite aside from any issues of animal ethics.

2% free-range eggs in the US vs. 32% in France (2010 figure), 27% in the UK (2007). What explains the difference? Revealed analysis is clearly only a tiny part of the issue... except if you surmise that in the US hypocrisy is several orders of magnitude above what we have in Europe.

anything else would be too much

I was a bit quick on that. The 32% and 27% figures I quoted are for free range eggs whereas TC's 2% is for cage-free eggs. The difference is even more acute animal welfare-wise.

One explanation could be the support of retailers and the fact that European legislation is banning the caging of hens in 2012 - which will have pushed the industry to shift production modes with some advance.

#2 and #3 are not contradictory or hypocritical, and do not have to be due to a lack of information (although it might). It simply means that 45% of people don't think housing chickens in cages is inumane, 53% of people think it is humane but worth it for cheaper eggs, and 2% think that it is inhumane and not worth the cheaper price of eggs.

Keeping chickens in cages does seem inhumane to me, but I don't know if I would pay 10 cents per egg to stop that injustice.

I also happen to think that slicing a cow into pieces, putting some of its muscles in a grinder, and then throwing the ground muscles over a fire is kind of mean. But I think hamburgers are delicious even more.

The market share of cage-free eggs has never exceeded two percent

What would be more interesting is the trajectory. How's the derivative.

I just started buying cage-free eggs, but it was for selfish reasons. I have read that they contain a better ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids because their diets are more varied. If anyone has any insight on this topic, I'd appreciate more info.

The omega-3 and -6 content of eggs occurs as a result of their diet. Most typically, it is because flaxseed is introduced into their feed ration, though there are other feedstuffs that produce the same result. Whether they are caged, uncaged, or pastured is a different matter, though IIRC pasturing will produce some additional omega-3/6.


A nit-pick: The survey's frame doesn't wholly overlap with the egg-buying public, in that vegans (at least) are present in the former but self-excluded from the latter. That said, dog-bites-man. Duh.

@Dave: 'cage-free' per se does not necessarily mean a different diet than for caged birds; it just means that the animals are free to move around a larger (but generally still indoor) space. The feeding regimen may well be identical, though they likely eat a little more than caged animals thanks to using up some energy moving around. Thus that choice is one that would probably be made purely on ethical grounds. 'Free range' under modern regulations also may not mean much as the size of the provided outdoor space that needs to be provided is minimal and there is no particular requirement that it contain things a chicken might want to eat. It is difficult to assess the likely omega fatty acid content of eggs just based on labels; ideally you would want to buy from an outfit that had some commitment to transparency so that you could evaluate their practices yourself. Full disclosure, I am in the business of (among other things) raising pastured chickens for meat and eggs, see: http://greencirclefarmpa.com/


Thanks for the comment.

Are eggs labeled "organic" generally different? Are they allowed to roam outside and eat insects?

Broadly speaking 'organic' tells you that certain things are *not* used in producing the food, i.e. pesticides, herbicides, maybe antibiotics or certain kinds of feed supplements (the rules can be complex). It doesn't say anything further about the conditions under which livestock is raised. So no, organic chicken or eggs doesn't mean that the chickens were outside.

The comments cover the cost angle and the compassion angle. What's the taste aspect?

This entire discussion takes place in a surreal, affluent fantasy world. It appears to me that folks use their concern over their food supply chain to a) feel better about themselves and/or b) feel better than other people. Most health and nutrition effects are, at best, poorly documented.

I'm not advocating animal torture, but when did "humane" start applying to animals? Let's be reasonable.

> but when did “humane” start applying to animals?

The main animal humane societies in the UK are the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) (founded 1824) - Wikipedia

So I'd say a "humane" has applied to animals for a while now.

The "human" in "humane" refers more to the actor than the actee. anyone with humanity will treat creatures humanely regardless of a creature's ability to advocate for its own kind treatment.

Belief and acting on that belief are totally different things. Reminded me of that classic Louis C.K. bit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv8d_ry-u-Q&feature=player_detailpage#t=288s

I've always found it laughable, the argument that individual choice economics will translate into accurate reflections of consumer morality. Any decent retailer can control the information context of their sold goods, and there is no reason for them to honestly represent morally ambiguous facts about them which might inform consumers.

On the other hand, the economic conditions -> stimulate human action -> define morality seems accurate, and its consequence is that morality is hardly an intellectual pursuit, but more a social representation of incontrovertible economic fact...

> but when did “humane” start applying to animals?

The main animal humane societies in the UK are the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) (founded 1824) - Wikipedia

So, in answer to your question - it started applying to animals a while back...

Oops - sorry for the double post. The original didn't show up for a few minutes.

How can you compare "Food prices" and "Well being of animals"? They don't have the same units.

Would I pay 1 cent more per egg if the chickens had nicer conditions? Sure. $1 more? Unlikely. (You'd have to quantify the improvement in animal well-being to even answer that question.)

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