By Robert Gooch, chief executive, British Free Range Producers’ Association
Headlines of bumper egg sales during the COVID-19 crisis mask a number of key issues faced by free range egg farmers.
On face value a 17% sales boost – combined with the loss of production following the winter’s avian influenza outbreaks – will help solve the oversupply situation farmers have faced for two years.
Having too much egg in the supply chain has squeezed every producer, most of whom are selling eggs well below the £1.01 per dozen break-even cost shown in our ADAS figures.
Thankfully we are starting to see some upward movement in the prices paid to some farmers after packers were able to negotiate their increases with the supermarkets.
But it has all been too slow. Meanwhile, the feed price has risen and, as usual, my members are at the bottom of the list when it comes to seeing their costs covered.
On the flip side, sales direct from the farm gate have increased by 400% or more in some instances, and the jump in footfall has led some farms to install vending machines and sell other local, seasonal produce which is all good for the rural economy and the buy British message.
What we need to see now is an unwavering commitment from retailers to British eggs.
Traditionally, every shell egg sold in the UK’s major retailers is sold domestically – backed up by the British Lion which covers 90% of production.
So, it was extremely disappointing to see Lidl stocking Dutch colony eggs last month, citing a lack of supply leaving them no choice.
We believe there is enough British egg – and it is incumbent on retailers to leave no stone unturned to find it, rather than importing an inferior product just to protect their profit margin.
Eggs usually destined for the processing market should be diverted to stores, and buyers should innovate and build relationships to ensure supply chains are robust and can cope.
It is not just Lidl either. We are hearing that at least one other retailer is preparing the ground to import foreign egg.
This is not the result of COVID-19 but of a lack of resilience in the egg supply chain.
The current boom and bust in free range egg production could be mitigated by better aligned contracts between retailers, packers and producers.