UK: How Do You Like Your Eggs?

Last Updated: 13 March 2017
Article by Craig Houston

It's a quintessential breakfast question. Fried, boiled, poached, scrambled? Exactly the kind of vexing question you hope for of a lazy weekend. Indeed, whilst the myriad of ways to enjoy your eggs subsists, the choice of product on the shelf has seen something of a culture shift such that 'Free Range' is the consumer choice. Concerning then, that 'free range' eggs are currently facing a fight for their protected places on shop shelves.

Cholesterol on the rise

The recent Avian Flu outbreak across Europe has been raising cholesterol across the industry since December of last year when the government issued a prevention order requiring farmers to keep their birds inside to help prevent the spread of the disease. EC regulations meaning free range eggs cannot be marketed as such after 12 weeks of hens being housed inside. With the government restrictions ending on 28 February (save for around a quarter of British farmers in high risk zones), there may be some respite for farmers worried at the prospect of premium product pricing taking a hit when margins are already slim.

Dutch farmers cursing Commission Regulation (EC) No 589/2008 of 23 June 2008 have already failed in a legal challenge to overturn the proviso of Annex 2, 1(a) of the same, which pronounces; "In case of other restrictions, including veterinary restrictions, adopted under Community law to protect public and animal health, having the effect of restricting access of hens to open-air runs, eggs may continue to be marketed as 'free-range eggs' for the duration of the restriction, but under no circumstances for more than 12 weeks;". An entirely reasonable restriction in nearly any circumstance, the present one excepted it seems. The delicate balance between rigorously protecting standards and that of sympathising and allowing for exceptional circumstance is often the greatest trial law-makers and lawyers face.

As attempts to persuade the EU to temporarily relax regulation stutter, sympathy from other parts of the beleaguered dairy industry is probably in short supply. It's not that such sentiment and support isn't mutual, but as recent rumbles over the price of milk have shown, each have their own survival problems to contend with.

The whims of a well-kent chef

Rather than free range eggs setting a precedent for the same standards of quality and welfare and taking a foothold across the dairy and poultry sectors, many parts of it languished at the mercy of supermarket pricing, and individual indifference at the efficacy of home-grown food and drink produce. Enter Jamie Oliver. His effect on popular culture is as tangible as it probably is perplexing to the farmers of the nation. He speaks, people listen. Asda certainly were as they announced the launch of their own free-range milk this week. A profound about-turn after months on end of ill-feeling between, and hard-bargaining with, the country's farmers. Expect to see free range chickens more prominently placed on shelves in coming weeks – another of Oliver's recent campaigns. And maybe even a cow-tipping 'second coming' of sorts. Isolated, these revolutions are not. Such a marked shift in industry mindset is a harbinger of a wider, deeper change in attitudes.

Prescience of provenance

Asda's 'Pasture Promise' initiative may be an initial step on the road to formal safeguards – it guarantees that all milk sold under the label comes from cows kept outdoors for at least 6 months of the year – or it may yet fade with other food fads without the popular, and legal, support to stick. The cows will be forgiven for hoping it's the former. And stablemates will be praying produce provenance proliferates into their own domain. And the organic milk producers might hope for a knock-on effect on their sales as the attention draws consumers to consider their distinguished offerings amidst a range of alternatives on the shelves. One hopes they wont be too irritated at what they may perceive as an inferior product, and possible threat to their business. Whilst both may be very valid concerns, Asda have been savvy in spotting the middle ground, between organic and their standard fare as a sweet spot, offering clarity of message and standard in harmony with its dairy counterpart and modern mainstay, the free range egg. Both 'organic' and 'free-range' have their place.

A new regulatory recipe?

Whilst the importance of intervention by Mr Oliver in matters cannot be understated, it is the legal protections that will serve to preserve the popular uprising provoked by the often transitory cause crusaders. Many businesses will be watching with interest to see what the palpable undercurrent of change translates into in terms of their own regulatory frameworks and practices. Something of a metaphor for the cultural introspection ongoing within our wider society, the move to resurrect milk production quality standards will be welcomed across many communities as being symbolic of a renewed conscientious consumerism. Businesses across the food and drink sector await the (regulatory) ripple effect, if not already sensing, and preparing for it.

© MacRoberts 2017

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The material contained in this article is of the nature of general comment only and does not give advice on any particular matter. Recipients should not act on the basis of the information in this e-update without taking appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

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