Last month saw the largest gathering of free-range egg producers at their annual conference in Warwickshire. Richard Allison reports



The free-range egg sector has seen phenomenal growth in recent years, but there are fears that it could lead to a future oversupply as producers look to expand.

Speaking at the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) conference near Coventry, British Egg Industry Council chief executive Mark Williams highlighted that egg sales were approaching 11bn a year and increasing.

Free-range had seen a 9% year-on-year increase. Just taking the last 12 weeks, volume is up 11.5% year on year, according to TNS data.

“That’s just phenomenal. The other farming sectors would be envious of this level of growth,” said Mr Williams.

Looking ahead to 2012, he predicted that free range could account for half of the industry, up from the current 37% of retail shell egg sales.

“Therefore, we will need 14.5m hens in place. Expansion is needed because if we don’t do it, someone else will.”

But the biggest fear is the wider impact from the 2012 cage ban.

“There are reliable reports that half of hens still in cages will not have converted, resulting in about 31% of EU hens becoming illegal after the 2012 deadline. So what will happen is that the commission will buckle and give more time. But here in the UK, DEFRA has already indicated that there will be no more time.

“It is not just a cage worry, it will affect the whole industry,” he said.

He outlined to delegates how the BEIC is jointly lobbying the Commission with DEFRA to help protect UK producers who have converted from cheaper EU cage eggs. They are pushing for a “code 4” on eggs so that consumers can tell the difference between enriched colony and cage eggs plus an intra-community trade ban on cage eggs after the date.

Looking further ahead to 2015, Noble Foods chief executive Peter Thornton can’t see why free range cannot grow to nearly 60% of retail volume.

“But the challenge is to expand sales while keeping balance between supply and demand. This will be critical in the next 2-3 years.”

Too many eggs and prices fall while too few will mean consumers go elsewhere.

“Speculative expansion is dangerous and producers need to ensure they have a contract with a packer in place before expanding their flock.”