When cage-free eggs are here to stay (Part 2 of 2)

 

This article is Part 2 of 2 of a series. In the previous part last week, Elissa Lane, CEO and co-founder of Global Food Partners (GFP), spoke about the challenges to cage-free production and how her consultancy is supporting food businesses and egg producers to make the transition. In this article, Lane shares how the cage-free sector is seeing busier times during COVID-19, and how GFP is broadening its knowledge base for farmers through collaboration.


COVID-19: Busier times for the cage-free sector


“With the travel restrictions, while we have not been able to regularly visit farms which is an important part of our work, we are happy to say that there still has been increased focus in this area from the egg industry and it's been busy times for us, despite COVID-19. We are seeing a lot of farms transitioning to cage-free or expanding their existing production. Farmers are looking at examples from other parts of the world to implement best practices and get certified.


We have also used this time to work with clients in the food business sector to develop cage-free sourcing roadmaps so that they can successfully implement their policies in Asia. Through this roadmap, we analyse their supply chains and lay out solutions, including where they can source cage-free eggs from the region, and where and how we will support them and their suppliers to transition,” Lane shares.


She adds that while several farm visits to Europe had been organised by the egg industry for farms in Asia, European cage-free practices aren't always feasible for farms to adopt in the region. Now, Asian egg producers are looking at securing the right localised support to go cage-free which would work for them in the long term.


A case in point is, following the ban of conventional battery cages in the European Union in 2012, many European farmers switched to enriched or furnished cages which provided an improvement in bird welfare. But these were still seen as 'cages' by European consumers who wanted none of that.


“The consumers were still saying no, and they wanted 100% cage-free eggs. Many farmers saw that their investment in enriched cages went to waste, and now they are investing all over again in 100% cage-free production systems.


It's a risky investment, and we are not seeing too much of it in Asia. From our conversations with farmers in Asia and Latin America, many are deciding to go straight to cage-free,” Lane points out.


Referring to some media reports of concerns of oversupplies of free-range eggs in certain countries, GFP is also helping to clear the confusion among some farmers that cage-free is not necessarily referring to free-range, with the latter typically having higher costs.


Training innovation amid COVID-19


Further commenting on COVID-19 travel restrictions, Lane says: “As a huge part of our work involves going on-farm, we needed to look at different options, and learnt that there was a need to innovate.


We will be introducing a virtual learning resource early this year, available in different local languages. There will be different virtual learning tools, including virtual reality, where a farmer will be able to explore different cage-free aviaries and floor systems, and see the different elements, for example how nest boxes would be placed and what to do with floor eggs, or whether there is feather pecking.”


Lane also shares that GFP will be launching a global cage-free online hub early this year, equipped with a global positioning system to connect food businesses with cage-free farmers.


That said, GFP is also establishing on-site cage-free training centres, for farmers in China, Indonesia and the rest of Asia. These centres will provide practical training in best practices in cage-free management, serve as model farms to visit, and offer research and development centres. These physical centres coupled with the virtual learning resources will allow GFP to continue training farmers during the pandemic and beyond.


“The idea of these centres is to allow local training to be accessible to farmers of all sizes in the region,” highlights Lane.


Broadening the knowledge base through collaboration


Noting that the consumer today is not only demanding cage-free eggs, but also eggs which are antibiotic-free and safe to consume, GFP understands that in order to reduce antibiotic reliance, birds need to be their best health condition. This is where the best practices in cage-free production from GFP can help farms improve their biosecurity and protect birds from health issues.


“We acknowledge that antibiotic resistance is a global issue, and the agricultural industry plays an important role. We promote responsible practices that are good for the birds and the planet. Providing a good environment for the birds and ensuring robust health management and biosecurity practices are crucial in minimising the incidence of disease, and thereby reducing the reliance of the industry on antibiotics to prevent disease,” Lane explains.


On the China market, amid the COVID-19 pandemic in July last year, GFP and event organiser VIV Qingdao had the same mission in mind - the need for capacity building - and jointly organised a webinar on cage-free production in China. “Together with VIV Qingdao, with their vast network of egg producers, and having spoken to many of them, we worked together to fill the information gap in cage-free production,” says Lane.


The speakers included Vencomatic who explained which cage-free equipment is the right one to use, based on the production goal and type of production system; Orient Agrotech, soon to be one of the largest cage-free producers in China, who shared their experience; and GFP's Senior Animal Scientist who discussed best practices in cage-free layer hen welfare and management.


“We have new projects and collaborations with VIV for this year, to provide farmers with what they need to carry out a sustainable and efficient transition to cage-free production,” Lane adds.


Finally, on the nascent sector of egg alternatives, Lane says that increasing demand in alternative proteins in fact goes hand in hand with higher welfare animal products. There are major food businesses looking at both cage-free eggs and egg alternatives to advance their cage-free policies, and she sees a good amount growing the next few years.


“Right now, there is not an egg alternative which can supply a major food manufacturer, and there are food businesses are looking at both options to fulfil their cage-free commitments,” Lane explains.


In the meantime, as the egg supply chain increases its commitment towards bird welfare, you might never know when you're waking up to a guilt-free, sunny-side up from a cage-free farm.

 

- Ngai Meng CHAN and Terry TAN