- The Chicken Project uses interactive technologies to help consumers better understand where food comes from
- Recent changes to free range stocking limits for chickens mean ‘free range’ eggs can be similar to ‘barn laid’ eggs
The growing disconnect between rural food producers and urban consumers is no more obvious than in the Australian egg industry. When buying eggs from the supermarket or cooking them at home, how often do we honestly consider the role of the chicken?
Recognising the chicken as a stakeholder in this producer-to-consumer relationship is at the centre of Jessica Frawley’s research. The work of the then Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Information Technology student (she’s now undertaking a PhD in multimodal design and design literacies at UTS), looks at reconnecting the producers and consumers with interactive technologies.
“We need to consider how we, as consumers, feel about the production of our eggs and rethink our position on farming,” says Frawley.
When we pick up egg cartons at the supermarket we see words like ‘free range’, ‘organic’, ‘barn’, ‘caged’, ‘eco’, ‘organic’, ‘liberty’ and ‘omega 3’. However, the chicken who produced the egg is often nowhere to be seen; they have no visual representation and no voice. They are very rarely acknowledged at all.
The relationship between farmers and urban consumers in the Australian egg industry is problematic. There is a vast difference between the consumers’ perception of ‘free range’ egg farming and the reality.
“In 2011 the Australian Egg Corporation issued a standard recommending an increase in free range stocking limits from 1500 hens per hectare to 20 000. Whilst there is currently no legally enforceable standard within the Australian egg industry, most consumers would not consider this to be the ‘free range’ they’re paying for at the supermarket counter,“ says Frawley.
A chicken’s ability to roam free around a pasture or an outside area is what defines it as being ‘free range’. Only a number of ‘free range’ chickens receive this luxury as farmers often don’t open the exit holes on the pens. This means eggs produced from certified ‘free range’ farms can be similar to barn laid eggs and consumers have no way of differentiating one from another.
Frawley, who has four chickens of her own roaming freely around her backyard, is all about animal welfare. “I know they’re individual animals with different likes and dislikes. When I found out about the changes to standards allowing an increase in density of chickens, I became really interested in ways consumers could be connected to their food, thinking more about where their food came from and the animal who is often completely invisible in the process.
“It’s very efficient to treat a chicken like a cog in a machine, but is that really the way we want to be living?
“We, as consumers, too quickly wash our hands of responsibility when we purchase eggs.”
Frawley’s research project was completed as part of the Human Centered Interaction Design subject which was part of her honours degree.
The Chicken Project aims to bridge the knowledge gap between farmers and consumers by employing information technologies designed with participants, including the animal, as a stakeholder. She designed a website, Little Red Hen Recipes, which aims to reconnect consumers with both the animal and human producers.
“The exciting part of my assignment is that it uses technology and design to reconnect people with the origin and value of the food they eat.
“A major part of the design process is representing system stakeholders who are not human. Ordinarily, when we design technology for people, we develop a persona, a characterisation of a person who would use the final technology. In order for me to think about who is really affected by the technology, I created a chicken persona called Betsy. She allowed me to start re-thinking the role of the animal in the design process.”
Little Red Hen Recipes enables farmers to upload recipes that include the animal’s and farmer’s labour as part of the production steps. “Essentially it was re-writing what a recipe really was and encouraging consumers to think about how their food reaches their doorstep,” says Frawley.
Though the website has not yet gone live, Frawley believes the most important aspect is understanding how the design process can begin to start including animal participants and stakeholders.
“I decided to design a recipe website as I found that, surprisingly, consumers didn’t think about their foods’ origin in the supermarket; shopping was generally part of their weekly routine. However, when looking for recipes, they were generally more open to considering the quality of their food. I wanted to capitalise on this exploratory mind set and get them thinking about where their food had come from.”
As a part of her research, Frawley spoke to café owners, consumers, producers and industry regulators. A major part of her research was based on her visit to Berrima Ridge Eggs Farm, where she met owners Warren and Anne Stuckey whose farm puts in to practice ideas that recognise the chicken and creates an environment where they are comfortable and free.
“Their whole philosophy towards egg farming is based around the idea that the chicken is a stakeholder and has entitlements such as clean water and freedom. The Stuckeys have connected their chickens directly with their local buyers by writing stories from the chicken on the lid of the egg carton,” says Frawley.
Eight years ago, Anne Stuckey started the farm with 30 hens. They now have 5000, who Stuckey refers to as ‘the girls’. “They have the freedom to roam, eat, drink and bathe whenever they want. We have learned to look for what the chickens like doing; they like shade in summer, sunlight in winter – we try to accommodate their wants and needs,” says Stuckey.
“There are so many unnatural processes in egg farming at the moment. Dyes put in feed to make the yoke a certain colour, cages stacked to the roof full of hens – the chickens never see daylight or eat a blade of grass.
“When we began, I thought the way we ran our free range egg farm was the way everybody did it. It wasn’t until I read an industry magazine and looked into it that I realised the true state of egg farming in Australia. Hens are not a ‘production species’ to us.”
Frawley says, “We need to be more ethical and connected with our food, especially eggs. It’s our responsibility as consumers. And through design, design methods, and the enormous wealth of technologies we already have, we can start to seriously make these connections.”