Soapbox: What future free-range eggs?

At last we have a new government – or should I say “governments”. And as you can imagine, they will be setting off like a new broom, working together solving all our country’s problems and probably creating some new ones for us to contend with – as if we did not have enough problems in our own industry. Or do we?

Our industry has been challenged to expand as we all know, due to consumers demanding more welfare-friendly methods of producing eggs and, of course, the EU regulation that only colony cages will be allowed after January 2012.

At one point I thought the expansion required was going to be an impossible task, due to the total capital investment required. Was there going to be enough eligible land available? Were there going to be enough people in our industry, including new entrants? Would reduced stocking rates in sheds from 11 birds/sq m to 9 birds/sq m hinder the expansion?

Yet here we are in 2010 and, with welcomed changes in legislation to allow us to stock our range at 2000 birds/ha instead of 1000 birds, grant aid being available in some parts of the country, plus sheer commitment from our industry, it looks certain that we will be able to achieve the expansion necessary to fulfil the demand for free-range eggs.

Over the last five months I have spoken to as many people as possible and, with support from the British Egg Industry Council, I have calculated that free-range bird numbers in the UK have reached 14m. My prediction is that we will need slightly more than 50% of the UK flock, (currently 33m), to be free range, so we need to manage the final part of this expansion with great care so as not to oversupply.

We must make sure producers already in egg production can take advantage of changes in legislation to expand their businesses and new entrants are given the proper advice, depending in what area of the country they are in, on whether to proceed or not with new buildings.

In my view there might be a slight imbalance going forward to 2012, but post that date we have an expanding market to supply. We must therefore be responsible at this point and act quickly to take up any shortfall in our egg market.

These predictions for supply and demand are for the UK only. If EU predictions are correct and 100m birds are still in conventional cages in 2012, what will we do? The EU Commission seems reluctant to introduce a new “number 4” egg category to differentiate our colony eggs. But with UK production complying fully with the 2012 legislation, we could find our eggs are much sought after throughout Europe.

* John Retson is chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association

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