Monday, August 17, 2009

Woolworths push for more 'free range' eggs

The decision by Woolworths to scale down the number of factory farms which supply the cage eggs sold in its supermarkets has been welcomed by many in the industry. But the decision doesn't automatically mean that it will sell less cage eggs.
It could be that the same numbers will be sold from fewer suppliers - so it cuts their costs. But if it does result in increased sales of 'free range' eggs it won't necessarily be a bonanza for consumers. It is being said that as sales increase, prices of free range eggs will drop. But they will never be as cheap as cage eggs.
Currently the industry is dominated by cage egg producers with about 80 per cent of Australia's 13 million laying hens kept in cages.
But the market share of free-range eggs has been increasing strongly in recent years and this latest move could give some added impetus. One of the main difficulties is determining what the words 'free range' mean. Eggs sold in Woolworths and other supermarkets as 'free range' are almost inevitably laid by hens kept in large flocks. Each hen will have been de-beaked (or beak trimmed) to prevent cannibalism caused by the high density production system. (Even though the national hen welfare code stipulates that beak trimming should be a last resort)
Many thousands of hens vie for space in sheds which contain all the food and water . There may be holes in the sides of the sheds to 'allow' the hens to go outside - but why would they if there's nothing outside for them.
Sure it looks good to have a few hens poking around outside but in many cases more than half of the hens never go outside. If that's your idea of free range then run along to Woolies or Safeway to buy your eggs.
What's really needed is a definition for high density free range production which clearly differentiates them from traditional free range methods with hens in small flocks.
Farms like ours are not interested in volume production. We don't want to supply supermarkets and we are perfectly happy just providing eggs to customers in our local area.
We have a food miles policy which limits our distribution to just one hour from the farm which is why we don't go to any of the Melbourne Farmers' Markets or sell to restaurants and shops in Melbourne.

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