Analysis: Noble Foods goes cage-free

Initially it looked like a clumsy attempt to placate animal rights protesters. A few days after footage of poorly kept hens in colony barns was published in several newspapers, Noble Foods, the UK’s biggest egg firm put out a statement.

“Noble Foods has today announced a group-wide commitment to supplying cage-free eggs by 2025. This announcement comes as the culmination of months of planning to achieve the realities of moving to solely cage-free production. Noble has been working closely with its retail partners and the farming community to ensure a smooth transition.”

The farm in question – Walston Poultry Farm in Dorset – supplies eggs for Noble Food’s Big & Fresh brand, sold in Tesco and Asda. The footage showed among other things dead birds left in cages, and problems with feather loss and pecking injuries. The unit has been suspended from the Lion scheme by the BEIC pending the retraining of the stockmen responsible.

There were animal rights protesters camped outside Noble’s PR firm Spider and following the announcement they claimed victory, but the reality is the decision – which was a long time in the planning – simply echoes the way the whole industry is moving.

All the major supermarket retailers have announced their decision to only accept cage-free eggs by 2025. The Co-operative, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose already sell only non-cage shell eggs. Aldi, Asda, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons and Tesco are working towards the 2025 deadline.

Market value

There remains seven years until the changeover. According to the British Free Range Producers Association (BFREPA), enriched cage eggs are currently estimated to account for a weighted average of 35% of retail sales.  Free range (including organic) represents the remaining 65% since at present, barn egg production hardly features.

During the coming years producers will have to decide whether to convert their sheds to free-range, or remove the colony cages and produce for the barn egg market. Some producers will keep the colony cages of course and supply pubs and restaurant chains that have no issue with their use.

In a report commissioned by BFREPA last year, some retailers said they intended to offer barn eggs in future for their value lines, replacing caged eggs. Customers who are buying caged eggs as 2025 approaches will most likely switch to barn when these become the cheapest option, retailers told BFREPA.

Expansion of the barn egg market is likely to be popular with some egg producers because of the possibility of conversion to this system from existing enriched cage housing.

BFREPA’s report looks at how producers should prepare for the changes in the market. Given that demand for free range continues to grow, if the market share for free range eggs increases by 5% between 2017 and 2025, an additional 1.2 million cases of free range eggs will be required each year. This increases to an extra 1.8 million cases and an extra 2.5 million cases if increases of 10% or 15% occur. 

‘For the additional barn egg production systems required, total capital costs are expected to be between £60 million and £89 million if this is all in the form of conversions from enriched cages,’ the report states. ‘This would increase to between £80 million and £118 million if there are equal quantities of conversions and new-build facilities.’

Too much money

The question of which system to invest in is a big one, given that when battery cages were outlawed, egg producers in the UK invested nearly £400 million replacing battery cages with the new enriched cages, according to the NFU.

The enriched colony was developed to meet an EU directive that came into law in 1999 and replaced all battery cages from January 2012. Birds are still housed indoors and are still in a cage but it is a very different environment to the previous system. The name enriched colony comes from the fact  the cage includes features such as a scratch area, perch and nest box, and it is a colony because the number of birds kept in these significantly larger cages are typically up to 80.
Depending on the size of the unit there are typically between 40 and 80 birds in each colony. According to the NFU, the space per bird, defined by law, has been increased by 36% over the previous system but because the cage itself may be as much as 5m in length and 2m wide and hens by their nature are sociable animals there is always plenty of space for the bird to move about the cage and fully extend their wings without impacting against the cage or each other. Bird space in the new colony cages has been increased to 750cm².

“As a result we have seen a big improvement in animal welfare with lower mortality, better feather cover and good production because the hens are happier in a system that provides more of the hens needs,” the NFU says. “Millions of hens outside of the EU are still kept in barren cages where costs of production are significantly cheaper.”

Transition period

John Kirkpatrick, agriculture manager for poultry and eggs at Tesco, said in 2016 when he announced the intended move to cage-free the retailer was working closely with producers to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“Our customers will still want a value tier of egg,” he said at the time. This would mean some colony units being converted to barn systems, while others may choose to invest in free-range.”

For now, Asda and Tesco are still mulling over whether they need a budget tier of eggs. It’s not been ruled out they could go totally free range, but neither were able to confirm to Poultry Business where discussions currently were.

BEIC chief executive Mark Williams told Poultry Business some producers would likely continue to produce colony eggs, just not for the retail market. “Colony egg production is significant,” he says. “It represents 48% of packing station throughput. Free-range is 48.4%, barn eggs are 1.5% and the balance is organic. I’m sure there will still be a market for colony via foodservice. Clearly, those who made an investment in 2012 [after battery cages were banned], that has to be paid for.”

Others will decide to move into higher welfare production though. “At the end of the day, the industry will respond to what the public wants,” says Williams.






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