Former NFU man Gary Ford is taking over as chief exec at the BEIC. He tells Chloe Ryan why the lure of poultry was too great to resist
Gary Ford is well known in the poultry industry thanks to his former role as chief poultry adviser at the NFU. He left that role in 2020 to take on an NFU regional director role, representing farmers of all types, but is now back in poultry full time, as the new chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council.
He is currently working through a four-month handover from Mark Williams, who is stepping back from the chief exec role and will become a two-day-a-week chairman from December.
According to Ford, the timing of his new role was fortuitous. Just before he got the call from Williams, he was doing a spot of spring cleaning, and came across some old poultry paperwork, which made him feel nostalgic for the industry.
“I have always had poultry coursing through my veins, so even though I was no longer chief poultry adviser, if there was an opportunity to engage with poultry producers and growers, I seized upon it,” he says.
Ford went to the NFU conference in February this year and spoke to some poultry members. “I thought to myself, I do miss the poultry sector. I felt I’ve still got a lot to give. So, the call out of the blue from Mark Williams landed on fertile ground, and the rest is history. I am seven weeks in now and loving it here.”
His arrival at the BEIC has come at a challenging time for the industry. There is a lot for him to do. BEIC has several functions, and the political and economic circumstances mean all are being stretched to their limit.
First, the new version 8 of the British Lion Code of Practice has recently been launched. Earlier this year, on its 25th anniversary, the new enhanced Code was published, incorporating the latest scientific and veterinary advice, as well as industry expertise. The changes have meant a lot of work with producers, communicating the changes and the reasons behind them. Not all the changes have been popular, and some smaller producers see the requirements as a big burden for little benefit.
The new version of the Code covers more than 700 auditable points from Salmonella vaccination to complete traceability of hens, eggs and feed. It involves enhanced sampling and testing, auditing and enforcement, as well as updates to rodent control, on-farm and packing centre protocols and the Lion training passport. While still primarily a food safety Code, animal welfare standards have also been brought to the fore.
Meet & greet
Meeting as many producers and packers as possible is Ford’s first priority. “I have been renewing old acquaintances and meeting people for the first time. I want that golden thread of engagement,” he says. “It’s vital that we do that, particularly with the launch of the new version 8. I’m very much in listening mode. I want to hear from a wide range of people and organisations and stakeholders.”
While Ford acknowledges not everybody will be happy, he says version 8 has generally has been well received. “I think people are pleased that we’ve finally got version 8 after it’s been talked about for many months, if not many years. There are questions from producers in particular wanting clarification on some points, and we are in the process of producing a quick Q & A document to address some of those questions.
“What I would like to do is hold a series of producer meetings in the New Year so that we can get producers together, then we can explain the rationale or answer any questions that they’ve got regarding the Lion scheme and talk about areas where we’re seeing non-compliance. “Engagement for me is absolutely critically
important to my role.”
Updating the standards is crucial to maintain food safety, he adds. “We need to evolve to ensure that we continue to be a world leading food assurance scheme. We are regularly asked by customers about food safety and we are also finding some customers asking about environmental standards so we’ve introduced an environmental standard into the Lion for the for the first time.”
He is fully aware that for most producers, avian influenza is at the top of the list of concerns. “It affects us, all producers, whatever your system of production. We’re all impacted by avian influenza.” Supporting the packers and the producers through this coming season will be another core focus in the months ahead. As he points out, it could well be another difficult winter.
Clear communication on biosecurity is a crucial component of this. It is something that is familiar to Ford, as it was a big part of his previous role at the NFU. “We are working with the layer sector to ensure that we’ve got good standards of biosecurity so producers can protect their own businesses and protect the reputation and minimise the disruption to the whole industry,” he says.
The lobbying element of the BEIC is also important when it comes to AI. As Ford points out, the rules around selling eggs from free-range hens that have to be housed are a source of frustration. Currently, free-range producers can continue marketing eggs from housed hens as free-range for 16 weeks. After this producers lose their free-range status.
“That’s a frustration but we are keeping close to Defra and having regular meetings with them,” says Ford. Ideally, he would like the 16-week limit removed so that the timing of the now annual housing order becomes less stressful than it already is. The work to communicate this is ongoing.
Eggs from Mexico
Trade deals are another big area of work for the BEIC, especially given the concerns about the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal. This post-Brexit trade deal was announced with great fanfare by the Government, but despite significant lobbying efforts from the BEIC and others, it includes within it no protection for the UK egg industry against imported eggs from other signatory
Mexico in particular is of concern because its egg industry comprises almost entirely battery cages, which have been illegal in the UK since 2012. Under the current terms of the deal, in 10 years’ time, unfettered access to the UK market would be permitted for Mexican egg businesses. “The lobbying is ongoing,” says Ford. “Indeed, we got encouragement from the Prime Minister back in May when he wrote that open letter to farmers referencing our high standards of animal welfare. So, it’s frustrating. It doesn’t feel like a Brexit dividend.”
Why have lobbying efforts not worked so far? “It would appear,” says Ford, “that it is more important to go to strike deals that allow us to export our financial services and automotives and tech, to the detriment of UK agriculture.”
Despite this gloomy conclusion, Ford is still optimistic that he can continue to press the industry’s case to government. India and the UK are currently finalising the details of another major trade deal, and he urges producers to invite their MP to their farm, and use the opportunity to explain the impact of trade deals on industries such as poultry.
Indeed, he recently hosted his own MP, Rachel MacLean, who represents Redditch, and spoke about his concerns about new trade deals, including the animal welfare and environmental standards of imported poultry products. “I was told there will be various safeguards in place to protect us from that happening,” he says. He is now “waiting with bated breath,” to have this in writing from the ministers who have the power to build these safeguards into trade deals.
Of course, standards of imported eggs have become increasingly important over the past few years, and not just because of new trade deals. The UK flock has reduced considerably over the past two years, due to poor returns for producers. Increasingly, retailers have shunned their own UK-only sourcing policies to buy from abroad to try and cover gaps on shelves.
While the UK egg shortages of the past year are now easing, organisations including BFREPA, which represents free-range egg producers, have called for better contracts for producers, which reflect the cost of production.
What does Ford think would be best to ensure the fiasco of empty egg shelves is avoided? “One size does not fit all, but contracts are absolutely vital so that both parties know where they stand,” he says.
Producers who have recently borrowed £2.5million to erect a new 32,000 bird unit would probably want the security of a long contract, says Ford, but producers with little or no debt may take a different view and be happy to see where the market took them.
He points out that the trends on cost inflation, while still driven by uncertain events such as the war in Ukraine, are currently going in the right direction. “The cost of electricity is probably two thirds down on where it was when it peaked. That is good news but clearly the biggest cost to producers is feed and we just don’t know what might be around the corner.”
Transition to barn
Another major upheaval for the industry is the transition from colony cages to barn production. Over the past few years, there has been a huge investment by egg producers in converting colony cage production to barn production ahead of the 2025 deadline imposed by retailers.
While there is nothing from retailers currently to suggest their policies are changing, the economic landscape has changed significantly since 2016, and given the cost-of-living crisis and demand for eggs of all types, Ford says he has written to all retailers asking them to confirm their plans and timescales.
Additional certainty is needed, he argues. “We know we have got those cage-free commitments made by retailers and a number of foodservice companies. But 2025 is barely 12 months away, so we are asking for clarity.”
Different retailers will have different interpretations of what cage-free means, with some switching entirely to free-range systems and others offering barn egg as its value option. “There are a lot of questions, especially in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Colony egg, which is a perfectly good system of production, is popular for many consumers.”
Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, M&S, and Waitrose all have free-range only commitments, leaving Tesco, Asda and the discounters as the only retail markets for eggs from barn systems.
Given cost pressures, is it possible Tesco, Asda and the discounters may reverse their cage-free commitments and decide to continue sourcing eggs from colony systems? “There is that question,” says Ford. “And that’s why we’re asking the question of the retailers and others: what are your cage free commitments as it stands now? We knew what they were back in 2016 and we want to know what they are now.
“Whenever I go to my local Asda, almost consistently the shipper containing the colony eggs is sold out. It just shows that there’s clear strong demand from consumers for colony cage entry level egg. I am sure that will be noticed by the commercial teams of the various retailers.
“Compared to 2016 when these commitments were made, the world has changed and things have moved on. There are different economic circumstances with interest rates going up and food inflation.”
Reasons to be cheerful
So, just seven weeks into the job, it’s clear Ford has a full inbox. But despite all the problems, he is bustling with enthusiasm for an industry he loves. In other circumstances, he would have liked to be a poultry farmer, Ford says. His parents have a farm, but the timing was never right to diversify into poultry, and now planning rules have made that possibility virtually non-existent.
And despite all the challenges, Ford says that if he was a poultry producer, he would be looking to the future with excitement. “There is a positive future out there,” he says.