News review – what the papers said about poultry in 2012

Searching through hundreds of news stories to find any mention of “egg” or “poultry” in 2012 can build a general picture of just how the outside world views our industry.

Recipes make up the most stories – and this is a positive thing. But here we have tried to focus on other mentions of eggs or poultry.

It was undoubtedly a volatile year, characterised by cage bans, egg shortages and rising feed bills. But it seems stranger stories, obscure studies and animal welfare campaigns have also found their way into the news coverage that the egg and poultry sector has “enjoyed”.


The cage ban and egg shortages

The biggest egg story in 2012 was the ban on conventional cages and its fallout.

The new year rolled in and The Daily Telegraph reported that around “23% of EU egg production is forecast to be illegal from today”. It shared an investigation with an animal welfare charity into a non-compliant French battery farm, supplying liquid egg products.

The message that the British Egg Industry Council released was also widely reported. From 1 January most newspapers had covered that the £400m investment by British farmers to enrich their layers’ cages could put the industry at a disadvantage if non-compliant imports were to continue. The Guardian ran a long news feature on 3 January, based around the judicial review that the BEIC had launched against the British government.

Later in the year, on 4 March, The Observer reported that egg prices were rising, especially for food manufacturers – an ice cream producer had reported the cost of liquid egg had risen by 70%. The Daily Mail picked up on the story, blaming what it described as “so-called enriched cages” for shortages.

On 12 March, BBC News visited NFU poultry board member (and later chairman), Duncan Priestner’s farm for an explanation of what an enriched cage was. Then it was on to Higgidy Pies, to speak to founder Camilla Stephens about the pressure on her supply chain.

The Daily Mirror followed on 13 March with a story entitled “Humble boiled egg could become a breakfast time treat as a shortage sends prices soaring.”

VERDICT: Non-compliance in other areas of Europe did seem to get strong coverage around the start of the year. Although most newspapers ran reasonably comprehensive reports, there seemed to be more attention when a shortage of eggs was on the cards. One notable fact was the little mention of what an enriched cage actually was. There was more focus on price than improvements to welfare.


Feed costs

Our search for stories featuring “egg” or “poultry” inevitably threw up a number of articles about feed prices. But rather than covering the cost to the farmer, it was the cost to consumers that hit the headlines.

The disappointing UK harvest certainly attracted coverage. British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock’s comment that “if consumers are to continue to enjoy a secure supply of British poultry, food prices need to accurately reflect cost increases”, featured in The Independent on 10 October,

The Guardian also covered the poor harvest, and how it could affect the cost of chicken. An article from 2 September said that rising food costs meant “the era of cheap food may be over”.

It also reported on 12 October that “Bread, coffee and fresh fruit have become a bit of a luxury.” The article said it was the £1.99 chicken from Tesco that “came to symbolise cheap supermarket food”. But it warned that Christmas dinner was likely to be more expensive: “Poultry producers have seen their overheads increase dramatically, owing to the poor grain harvest, which has pushed up the price of chicken and turkey feed.”

The Daily Mail covered the same issues. But whereas The Guardian used temperate language, The Daily Mail went for “Poultry prices set to skyrocket after worst US drought in half a century ravaged one-sixth of nation’s entire corn crop,” (17 August).

VERDICT: It’s understandable that the impact of feed costs on food prices, rather than on producers’ bottom lines, is the main topic for these stories. Some are more sensational than others, but generally they do mention that retailers place a lot of pressure on producers to keep prices down.


Health and well-being

In August this year, headlines across national newspapers suggested that eating eggs was “almost as bad as smoking” (The Daily Mail, The Sun, 15 August). The newspapers reported the release of a Canadian study that said: “Egg yolk contains cholesterol and having too much of it increases the risk of coronary artery disease.”

The papers explained that the study found “those eating three or more yolks a week had significantly more plaque area than those who ate two or fewer yolks per week”.

But they followed up on 20 August with a revised story entitled “Unscrambling the truth about eggs,” admitting that the Canadian research “goes against the grain” of current thinking. They also reported that eggs were healthier than 20 years ago, and there was now no recommended limit to the number eaten a day.

The Telegraph had previously reported (on 27 June) on a study that had found that high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins-style diets “can raise heart disease risk”.

But eggs’ new nutritional profile generally had good national newspaper coverage, including the article “Why eggs are better for you than ever,” (The Daily Express, 20 July).

Earlier in the year The Daily Mail (11 May) and The Daily Telegraph (15 May) reported that eating eggs for breakfast could stop you snacking. A study in America had revealed that high selenium content meant that “overweight or obese” volunteers ate less at lunch when they ate eggs for breakfast instead of cereal.

On the broiler side The Daily Mail led with the headline “Million women suffering urinary infections caused by chickens,” (20 March). Although widely reported in America, this study had little coverage in the UK.

But consumer magazine Which? reported in April it had tested 192 chickens in supermarkets, and found that one in five were contaminated with campylobacter, and 1.8% had salmonella.

Richard Lloyd, executive director at Which?, called the result “unacceptable”, and said that consumers shouldn’t be “expected to clean up mistakes in the supply chain”. His comments were widely repeated in the national press.

VERDICT: There is more news about how healthy or unhealthy eggs and poultry are than any other topic. The history between eggs and salmonella is an obvious element, as is the perception that there is high cholesterol in eggs. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the amount of small studies that get big coverage across several newspapers. On balance, it was a better year for eggs than meat.

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