ANALYSIS - Delegates to the annual conference of the British Free-Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) on 22 November heard a call from the organisation's Policy Director for them to work together for a more sustainable industry for the future. Senior Editor, Jackie Linden, reports.
Having been appointed BFREPA's Policy Director a year ago, the annual meeting was the first opportunity Roger Gooch had to report on his examination of the industry to the Association's members. He stressed to the nearly 500-strong audience at the National Motorcycle Museum at Solihull near Birmingham that the free-range sector in the UK had shown strong growth since 2002, doubling its market share of the domestic market. He went on to show how this dramatic growth has set up a cycle of boom and bust, which appears to be becoming ever more extreme, with periods of volume growth being followed by a steep decline in prices.
The industry needs to achieve a better balance between supply and demand in the free-range sector of the market, said Mr Gooch. In a 5-Point Plan he had presented to BFREPA members at their annual meeting earlier in the day, he proposed a number of measures to achieve this. A benchmarking system would allow producers to compare their costs with others and help identify areas where they could improve, he said. This, combined with accurate and up-to-date flock surveys would combine in a model as an early warning system to level out fluctuations and bring supply of and demand for free-range eggs back into balance.
Mr Gooch stressed the need for BFREPA members to work together with each other as well as with packers and retailers in order to achieve a more sustainable business, highlighting the projections for 2013-2014, which suggest another but more extreme 'bust' element of the fluctuating cycle.
In his presentation, Mr Gooch reserved particular praise for the Lion egg scheme and the promotional work done by the British Egg Information Service as well as for the producer-owned publication, 'The Ranger'.
BFREPA's Policy Director was not the only speaker to highlight the importance of communication for the good of the business at the conference.
Susannah Macmillan conveyed her passion for her family's organic free-range egg farm in Sussex. As well as having the well-being of her 'girls' as her top priority, she believes that opening her farm to visitors has helped it to develop a strong business. She stressed the importance of being open and transparent with all visitors at all times.
Mrs Macmillan clearly expressed her concern at the lack of knowledge by many members of animal rights groups and officials about farming in general and egg production in particular. She cited as an example the prospect of a future ban on beak tipping (beak trimming), which she feared may go ahead without the decision-makers having any knowledge of practical farming. She clearly feels the procedure is essential for the good welfare of her hens. Whilst attention to detail in all aspects of management can reduce feather pecking and cannibalism to a minimum, she said, it is the unexpected events that cannot be planned for that can set the birds to become aggressive with each other.
Beak trimming was also the topic covered by poultry veterinarian, Stephen Lister (Crowshall Veterinary Services) and Professor Christine Nicol (Bristol University's School of Veterinary Sciences). Mr Lister gave an update on the progress of the Beak Trimming Action Group, which was set up to examine whether a future ban on the practice would be feasible under commercial farming conditions. Professor Nicol briefly reviewed her research so far into management practices that can reduce feather pecking and cannibalism. She went on to describe a new Defra-funded trial into the management of flocks that had not been beak-trimmed, calling for the participation of BFREPA members in the study.
Finally, Professor Patrick Wall of University College Dublin made a rousing presentation on 'Exciting Times for the Egg Industry'.
He urged the audience of egg producers to think of themselves as being in the human health business, stressing the excellent nutrition offered by the egg to people of all ages, particularly to the elderly who require plenty of easily digestible protein for good health and mobility. Eggs are also good sources of vitamins, minerals and nutrients to promote good eye health, he said.
He reminded the audience that not all cholesterol is bad; it is excessive saturated fat intake that increases 'bad' cholesterol in the body and not egg consumption.
Food safety has to be the top priority, said Professor Wall, adding that the Lion scheme and labelling of every egg have been 'phenomenally successful' for the egg industry in this respect.
Returning to a point made earlier by Mrs Macmillan, he stressed how the general public has become disconnected from farming. In order to guide the perceptions of future consumers and purchasers of eggs, he stressed the need for producers to become involved in social media.