In a newly published Nuffield report, Hannah Eastaugh, Loughborough-based agriculture manager at Noble Foods, argues the egg sector must open its doors to the public to allay welfare concerns
“The egg sector is currently in a transitionary period,” states Hannah Eastaugh in the executive summary of her Nuffield report. The cage-free pledges from retailers are shaping how the egg industry will look in the future, but there is still uncertainty on what the ultimate picture will look like.
At the same time, consumers, especially those under 30, are more concerned with welfare than any previous generation and are using social media to influence public opinion about food production. In 2016, Tesco announced its intention to go cage-free by 2025. The other retailers then followed. Pledges like these have been made globally, as well as by companies such as Unilever, Nestlé and McDonald’s. Arguing the egg industry has demonstrated its ability to innovate and adapt,
Eastaugh makes the case the industry must stop hiding away. “It is time we, as an industry, opened our doors,” she says. “We have a good story to tell.”
Eastaugh highlights how the continual drive for better animal welfare has contributed to tighter margins for producers. This pressure, combined with lower retail prices has made the situation very tight for many producers. Average retail prices have decreased from £3.14/dozen in 2007 to £1.30/dozen in 2018.
“Producer margins need to improve to ensure our industry can be sustained long term,” she writes. “The retail pricing structure also needs to change to give at least a 2-3p/egg price differential between free-range and barn. “There is continual pressure on our industry from animal welfare organisations. Some are more extreme than others and they vary greatly in their approach and goals. Some want to end ‘factory farming’, others want to end all forms of animal agriculture.
Breaking and entering into farms, placing hidden cameras and protesting within housing units, are some of the extreme tactics that are not new but have increased in frequency over the last few years. Such tactics are not only detrimental to our industry, but extremely distressing for the farmers and animals involved.”
Legislation and increased pressure from animal welfare organisations have altered the way eggs are produced in other countries and are potentially going to affect the UK egg industry too.
Eastaugh also addresses the potential beak trimming ban facing producers in the UK. “It is crucial that regional groups are created and knowledge-sharing is embraced to ensure the health and welfare of birds are maintained,” she writes.
In the UK all day-old chicks, apart from chicks destined to be reared to organic standards, are IRBT (Infra-Red beak treated). This is to reduce injuries that occur as a result of feather pecking in a flock. In the report, Eastaugh writes that at some point in the future this will likely be banned in the UK, whether through legislation or code of practice.
Several countries in mainland Europe have already banned beak trimming with both Denmark and Germany implementing the ban through code of practice. Because the Netherlands exports a large proportion of its eggs to Germany, it has complied with this since 2018.
“I visited several producers in the Netherlands and Germany to understand how they had coped with the changes and what strategies they had put in place,” says Eastaugh. “Andreas Mackes from Germany has 90,000 brown birds (45,000 per floor) in a barn system. He found that they ate more feed per day when they retained full beaks as opposed to beak-trimmed birds: 120-122g/ bird/day vs. 118-120g/bird/day previously. “His one comment was ‘giving the birds more food is keeping them busy’.
He also used red lighting on the multi-tier systems as he said this helped reduce feather pecking. I observed this on several farms.”Eastaugh also describes a “disastrous” trial involving 6,000 brown birds without any beak treatment. The producer involved lost 20% of the birds and had to deplete them at 70 weeks. He tried again, but with 40,000 birds, and with greater success. Enrichments such as pecking stones and lucerne were used and oats were added to feed.
MALE CHICK CULLING
The report also covers the culling of day-old male chicks, with Germany and France recently implementing a ban. Eastaugh describes potential methods for detecting the sex of the chick in the egg, although none are yet commercially viable.
She also highlights that any tests need to be done as early in incubation as possible to ensure acceptance by consumer and welfare groups, as well as to make sure there are no negative effects on hatchability and, ultimately, the productivity of the laying hens. The method must also be fully automated, have a high throughput and be accepted by the consumer.
To research whether opening poultry farms to the public was of benefit to the industry, Eastaugh visited WING, a science and information centre for sustainable poultry production. It is a joint project of the University of Vechta and the Lower Saxony Poultry Industry Association in Germany. WING conducted a project involving opening poultry farms to the public. The idea was to enable the public to get an objective and impartial impression of modern egg and poultry meat production.
Researchers analysed the expectations of the visitors before entering the barns, and then the attitudes after such visits. A survey was conducted before and after the visit and, interestingly, of the respondents (WING, 2016-2018) 45.8% said their initial feeling after visiting the poultry house was positive. However, specific areas of suggested improvements in terms of laying hen barn systems were: lower stocking rates/more space (47%); more natural light (17.5%); and access to a free-range area (13.6%).
“Overall, the results of the study showed that having a dialogue between the public and the farmer can create trust,” Eastaugh says. “The youngest generation (14-29 years old) were the most critical group and the gap between their expectation versus the reality of what they saw was the widest.
ENGAGING WITH THE PUBLIC
Looking at examples from the UK, the report highlights the work of Paul Kelly, a premium turkey producer, who is very open in talking about what his company does and how its product is unique. The report quotes Kelly, who says: “If we are not willing to showcase what we do, there is a fundamental issue and we need to question ourselves.”
At least once a year Kelly hosts a media day where bloggers and journalists are invited to come and see the whole supply chain; from artificial insemination of the turkeys right through to processing. He sends a free turkey to influential cooks including Jamie Oliver and Mary Berry, who often then talk about the product in interviews and on social media.
Eastaugh’s report discusses some ways for producers to engage directly with consumers, such as viewing rooms and agritourism centres, which do not compromise biosecurity. Farmers, egg packers and industry bodies all have a role in communicating to the consumers, either with groups of visitors or via social media, she writes. Ultimately, Easthaugh’s report makes the case that welfare groups are having a huge influence over the way the industry is developing, and by opening the doors of the industry to the public, consumers can get a realistic picture of what is involved.
HANNAH EASTAUGH’S MAIN MESSAGES
1. It is time we, as an industry opened our doors, so that we are controlling the narrative rather than it being written for us. We have a good story to tell.
2. We have some of the best farm standards globally, but we must not become complacent and must be audit-ready at all times.
3. Barn eggs do have a place on the retail shelf but retail pricing needs readjusting for it to be a viable option.
4. Producer margins need to improve if we are to have a sustainable egg industry in the future, requiring joint support from retailers, egg packers and producers.
5. There are many challenges and opportunities coming down the track, but we are an industry that has shown in the past that we are able to innovate and adapt, and this must continue if we want to grow within an increasingly welfare-conscious market.