Problems ensuring that chickens and eggs remain fairly cheap

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RAIN this week and plenty of it, which is just as well as the water authorities are shouting ‘drought’ from the roof-tops now.

They are right to be concerned, as water is needed at this time of the year to replenish reservoirs and aquifers in particular.

It is very mild and very dry, quite unlike December I must say, but very pleasant all the same.

On my travels I have noticed that people are a little more social these days, more friendly; generally. Could this be due to recession and hard times?

The West End of London certainly indicates to me that there are fewer people out shopping given the time of year, and it must be very worrying for the high street stores.

The leaves are now falling in a major way, and plenty of acorns, crab apple and sloes for the young cattle and wildlife to feast on.

I have a lesser spotted woodpecker eating an apple on the lawn outside my office window as I write; a very messy diner, who may in fact be after the grubs inside the apple.

Woodpigeons are gorging on the acorns, and we had one in the garden yesterday who could not fly properly; crashing into things as it struggled to get in the air. Do they eat so much that they can’t fly? I would like to know.

The Chancellor’s Autumn statement last week was grim indeed, and there was little good news in the figures; nationally we are in a difficult economic position, of that there is no doubt.

However, the countryside and agriculture was mentioned, which in itself is a breath of fresh air.

The thrust of the statement regarding small and medium businesses is also very welcome, and something we have been asking for a very long time; to be freed up from stifling red tape and bureaucracy.

The commitment to improving broadband in rural areas is welcome - especially for me! Here I am, 40 minutes from Putney Bridge and in the Minister’s words - ‘digitally disadvantaged’.

The promised consultation on agricultural buildings, allowing them to be used for other business purposes, is also welcome, as is the positive impact of the Farming Regulation Task Force, if implemented properly.

The commitment to British science is overdue and most welcome, and we await with interest the details of the Government’s food and drink export action plan in January 2012.

This is a dynamic sector, delivering growth in export year on year; food and drink is the fourth largest exporting sector.

In my quest to establish facts and provide some clarity when it comes to some of the dishonesty prevailing in our society, I promised you last week that I would start with the humble chicken.

Fifty years ago, chicken used to be a luxury, a treat on Sunday; today chickens and eggs are the best value for money, both cheap to buy and incredibly versatile.

This was brought about by farmers discovering ways of producing cheaper meat and eggs, often on a very large scale.

The battery cage, much maligned by today’s single issue groups, was in fact a big step in the right direction, improving both the welfare of the chicken and the hygiene of the egg.

The chicken was protected from being attacked by its colleagues, predators and disease challenges, and the egg, nice and clean would roll away from the chicken, its porous shell not contaminated by faeces.

Of course, as time went on, attitudes changed, and although it had delivered a fantastic product at a very low price, there was unease about welfare and it was felt it time to move on, although 50 per cent of eggs sold are still battery, and farmers produce what consumers ask for.

The enriched colony cage, with 20 - 80 birds per colony, comes with scratching, perching allowing the bird to exhibit natural behaviour, and nest boxes; a quiet area for the hen.

UK farmers have invested some £400 million in this higher welfare system, whilst eggs and egg products are not expected to cost any more to retailers, of course.

As a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (we advise the Minister and Government), I listen to experts debate and give evidence on the perceived benefits and pitfalls of various systems.

On a perfect day, with a very well managed system, free range egg systems look great. However, weather, soil type, management systems and facilities all play a part, and there are plenty of challenges and problems in these systems too.

There is concern in Europe about prophylactic use of antibiotics in free range systems, necessitated by disease challenge, which tells us that this is a complex issue which can’t be solved with simple slogans.

The UK has a very good record, taking a leading role in minimizing antibiotic use, working closely with our vets, but alongside good husbandry is an important tool which we must be allowed to use responsibly.

Production of organic eggs or meat also have many challenges, and there are plenty of problems out there, which do not have easy solutions.

The simple truth is that to produce chicken and eggs at the price that people are willing to pay, means that most chickens are reared and managed on a large scale, and that it is done intensively; whichever system you care to look at.

There are benefits and drawbacks with each of these systems, and it is very difficult to say which one is best.

There are further complications too, such as the preference of British consumers for brown eggs (other countries prefer white), which means we keep brown hens.

Brown hens are more aggressive, and are much more likely to peck each other when kept in free-range groups; pecking has increased since the withdrawal of meat and bone-meal from chicken diets, which of course deprives the chicken of part of its natural diet.

To counter this, the tip of the chick’s beak is trimmed at a day old, rendering it a less lethal weapon, and this is something single issue groups have protested loudly about.

On balance, FAWC thought that beak-trimming (whilst not desirable) is certainly the lesser of two evils, and best protects the welfare of the hen.

Single issue groups point to other countries where they manage without beak-trimming, but our research shows that they are either keeping white hens, and their mortality rates are much higher and would not be tolerated in the UK.

The egg market is not straightforward, 46 per cent shell eggs to retailers, 24 per cent liquid egg for manufacturing and 30 per cent for food service.

Chicken and eggs are cheap affordable food, high in protein, and a vital part of our diets, especially in times of economic pressure.

Red Tractor chicken is almost 95 per cent of the market, and this gives consumers confidence that the product is assured, high quality and excellent value.

The UK is now 85 per cent self sufficient in egg and egg products, which is great news, but 15 per centent is imported and at a much lower price.

We must make sure that assured chicken and ‘Lion’ eggs are not displaced by cheap imports.

Gwyn Jones