Shropshire packer Oaklands Farm Eggs is the first to commit to stamping 100% of its eggs on farm, and has already reached 98% roll-out. “The whole point was to ensure egg traceability right down to farm level,” says technical director Elwyn Griffiths.
“We feel it’s important to support our producers and to protect the industry against foreign imports as best we can – ink printing at farm level gives us another important tool to ensure full traceability of every egg that comes through our packing centre. It’s also giving the consumer confidence that they know where their eggs come from.”
Oaklands has paid for the stamping units to be installed at each of its suppliers’ units, and is also financing consumables such as ink.
“On the whole, our producers were very receptive to it because it’s something that helps the market in the long run,” says Mr Griffiths. Although two producers will be ceasing to supply Oaklands because of incompatibility with the new regime, most have been extremely positive, he adds. “We hope the industry as a whole will start to come on line, to the benefit of the entire sector.”
Oaklands supplier Rob Lea started using an on-farm stamper at Egremont Farm earlier this year. With 20,000 free-range birds in two units, he needed a relatively small-scale machine and opted for a HeDi Pack system, costing about £2000.
“I thought it was a good idea to stamp on farm so all the eggs sold are genuine,” he says. “But I was aware there’s a huge expense to small producers.” Oaklands paid for the machine and consumables, but Mr Lea was still concerned about the labour cost. “We’re still putting the eggs in the trays by hand, which was a bit of a worry because it looked like stamping was going to increase our labour costs and slow us down.”
However, after packing, he simply places the trays on the stamping conveyer belt, and the machine does the rest. “It’s very easy to use.” The ink has to be topped up once a week, and the ink heads wiped clean before use, but there’s nothing to go wrong, he adds. “It takes an extra 25 minutes a day on top of packing, which is not a major issue – we can absorb that time.”
But if Mr Lea had been required to buy the equipment himself, he might have taken a different view, he says. “I agree with stamping in principle, but the cost has to be absorbed somewhere, and if I was having to pay for it myself, I would want to see an extra return for the eggs.”
Opinions over on-farm egg stamping have been split in recent years, with the industry first rejecting it in 2004 and then reconsidering it last year. Supporters believe it holds the answer to reducing fraud and improving traceability, while opponents claim the cost to the industry makes it unfeasible. So what are the real issues?
EU egg marketing rules made it compulsory to mark eggs with a code depicting production type, country of origin and the individual producer code from January 2004. But the UK successfully lobbied to allow this to be done at the packer rather than the farm of origin, so nearly all eggs now leave the farm unmarked.
However, after the 2006 scandal in which up to 500m imported battery eggs were allegedly sold as free-range, the industry reconsidered the issue of on-farm stamping. “We looked at it in considerable detail, and the overwhelming majority at the meeting decided not to go ahead at the time,” says Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council.
“It was at a time when feed costs were going through the roof – and obviously there is a cost to on-farm stamping.”
Estimates put the cost to the industry at £3m-£4m, with both a capital outlay and the ongoing cost of labour and consumables such as ink. “Nothing has changed since then,” says Mr Williams. “At the end of the day, producers are very much under the cosh and it doesn’t seem the right time to impose more costs of production on them.”
Although supporters claim that on-farm stamping will reduce the risk of fraud, the industry has already imposed other measures to combat this, he adds. These include unannounced audits of packing centres a register of egg movement between packers a new passport system and the planned introduction of a live database recording hen and egg numbers on individual sites.
Tom Vesey, chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association, reckons a move to compulsory on-farm stamping is inevitable. “Sooner or later we’ve got to go for it,” he says. “I think the consumers are going to require the sort of traceability that it will provide.”
With increasing interest in local and regional eggs, on-farm stamping could make it a lot simpler to provide traceability and provenance, he adds. “If the price of feed slackens and the price of eggs improves it will probably be looked at again.”
However, some firms are already trialling on-farm stamping, and one major packer has committed to stamping all of its eggs on farm. David Brass at the Lakes Free Range Egg Company in Cumbria is trialling different equipment on five farms with between 3000 and 16,000 hens.
“It takes more time, and it’s more costly, but it does improve the provenance of the product,” he says. “It’s not the be-all and end-all against fraud, but it’s a start and I think it’s inevitable. If the cost can be paid for by a bonus on the price then people will do it.”
All of the eggs that are being stamped are sold to a premium, environmentally friendly line in Morrisons, so are realising a bonus price anyway, says Mr Brass. “For standard supermarket eggs, it might be hard to get any premium back.”
Andrew Joret, technical director at Noble Foods, agrees that it could be difficult to create a premium for farm-stamped eggs. And for larger processors, shouldering the costs of individual farm machines would be a massive obligation – and individual producers are unlikely to want to foot the bill, he adds. “We are trialling on-farm stamping and are not against it, but we don’t think it’s a burden the industry can take at this time.”
There are two options open to producers – hand or automatic stamping of eggs. On average, machines are likely to cost £2500-£3000 a farm, although this will vary according to the type and number of machines required.
Large producer packers are likely to face higher capital outlays on automatic machinery, but no extra labour costs, while smaller producers may incur little outlay but higher labour costs when using manual stampers.
John Widdowson, vice-chairman of BFREPA, carried out a trial on his farm in Devon last year, with 20,000 free-range layers in five houses. He packed the eggs by hand and reckoned stamping added about 20% to the handling time, or 0.74p/doz eggs.