Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Freedom Food Eggs

This article in the FarmingUK online magazine about changes to the Lion code for the "free range" label is both interesting and depressing — and demonstrates the part Freedom Food plays in keeping the developing welfare-audited food market honest. 
"Freedom Food, however, says it is waiting to see evidence that there will be no detrimental effect on animal welfare. If that cannot be produced, it will continue with its stocking density limit of 1,000 birds per hectare."
"Leigh Grant, chief executive of Freedom Food, said the RSPCA was waiting to see the evidence that there would be no effect on animal welfare.

"The RSPCA has had very positive dialogue with the industry and it is asking the industry to provide evidence that this would not prove detrimental to animal welfare," he said. "The industry has agreed to run trials and the RSPCA is awaiting the result.

"My own personal position is that if the industry, working with the RSPCA, is able to arrive at a point where it can show that the change is not detrimental then I would be happy. However, I would not want the RSPCA to be influenced by commercial considerations."

He said that when a product carried the Freedom Food logo that product carried an RSPCA endorsement, so it was inevitable that the RSPCA should be very sensitive about welfare considerations. The RSPCA had worked very hard with the industry over the years to help put free range where it was today and he hoped that co-operation would continue. He pointed out that a huge number of retailers - the majority of them - were with Freedom Food. If the industry was not able to provide evidence that a change in stocking density would not affect animal welfare then the Freedom Food standard would not be changed. Then there would have to be two separate standards and the retailers and their customers would have to make a choice."
So, we could potentially be seeing a situation where "Free Range" labelled eggs could be from hens stocked at twice the density of hens producing eggs under the "Freedom Food" label. (In fact, my reading of the article is that this may already be the case, but the higher-density wouldn't be eligible for the "Lion" quality label.

I can see that there must be pressure to maximise production of food per acre of land. Arguably the ultimate way to do this would be to grow plants for direct human consumption, but people are likely to want to consume eggs for the foreseeable future. Maybe the answer is a return to the older system of poultry flocks in orchards (scroll down to see Chivers' then cutting-edge pedigree flock, just down the road from Cambridge). 

In fact Chivers must have been an absolutely wonderful example of integrated farming for maximum productivity per acre as they seem to have had bees as well as poultry so that their orchards were producing honey, eggs and fruit from a single piece of land. So far as it's possible to tell from the photos, their hens had at least as much space as the best modern free-range farms, and probably better welfare since chickens are naturally woodland birds.

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