Adapting UK egg production for an increasingly welfare-conscious market
The egg sector is currently in a transitionary period. Cage-free pledges from retail and many food businesses are going to shape the egg industry over the next 5 years but there is still uncertainty on what the ultimate picture will look like. Average retail prices have decreased from £3.14/dozen in 2007 to £1.30/dozen in 2018 and producer margins are tight. Animal welfare is a constant factor. 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. Additionally, consumers are becoming more interested in where their food comes from.
The objectives of the study tour were to identify potential challenges and opportunities that the UK egg industry could face in the near future, plus look at how better to promote the welfare credentials of egg production to inform the end consumer.
I visited the USA and Norway to compare large versus small scale egg production, focussing on alternative methods of production; Canada, with its unique egg supply management system; many countries in Europe due to their perceived advancements in animal welfare; along with businesses in all those countries which are key examples of successful engagement with consumers.
The UK has some of the highest farm standards that I have seen; however, we must not become complacent. Producer margins need to improve to ensure our industry can be sustained long term. The retail pricing structure also needs to change to give at least a 2-3p/egg price differential between free range and barn.
There are many opportunities and challenges coming, notably a potential beak trimming ban. It is crucial that regional groups are created and knowledge-sharing is embraced to ensure the health and welfare of birds are maintained. Culling of day-old male chicks is another emotive topic with Germany and France recently implementing a ban. In-Ovo sexing methods that breeding companies are adopting need to be commercially viable, with tests as early in incubation as possible to ensure acceptance by consumer and welfare groups.
Opportunities - such as utilising white birds, updating rearing systems to match laying ones, plus connecting more with academia - have benefits for both the producer and the wider industry.
Engaging with consumers - for example through social media, open farms and industry initiatives – allows producers to control the narrative. It is important not only to tell the story but to listen, engage, keep the messaging simple, and be real. Context is key. Finding 4-5 egg ambassadors for our industry who can promote what we do will help to get the industry’s message heard.
In summary, there are many challenges and opportunities facing the UK egg industry; but it has demonstrated in the past an ability to innovate and adapt, and it is time we, as an industry, opened our doors. We have a good story to tell.
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