New Zealand is facing a nationwide free range egg shortage, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to FRENZ founder Rob Darby. Free range egg stocks are being put under pressure by both increasing consumer demand and also the response of an industry under close scrutiny by the Commerce Commission and Ministry of Primary Industries, following the mislabelling scandal earlier this year.
The scandal, which saw egg producer Palace Poultry sell caged eggs in free-range labelling earlier this year, led to calls for the government to intervene. The matter is still under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. As a result of the close watch by government bodies, egg producers that had previously topped up their ‘free range’ eggs with non-free range eggs were forced to stop the practice, resulting in a shortage of genuine free range eggs.
New Zealand’s welfare code is not prescriptive and currently has no penalties for non-compliance, and there is no legal definition for free-range. While there are a number of independent accreditations, Darby said that these independent bodies are susceptible to pressures from larger producers to change the standards.
While Darby claims that the terms ‘free range’ and sustainable’ are more marketing terms than legal or scientific, the benefits of free range eggs are now being proven in the scientific realm. Studies have shown that free-range chickens produce eggs which are more enriched in natural protein, are higher in natural omega 3, as well as containing less saturated fats.
The scandal has also seen renewed calls for mandatory egg stamping, something which FRENZ already does. The stamping would allow consumers to track the eggs from the plate back to farm and reduces the risk of another Palace Poultry situation, where eggs are bought and on sold in different packaging. However, he argues that egg stamping is only effective when used in conjunction with sanitising. “An egg is just like anything else you’ve got from your garden – it needs to be washed,” he said. To stamp an egg would only serve to push bacteria into the pores of the egg, leading to potential food safety issues.
All FRENZ farmers must adhere to the strict genuine free range standard set by the company to supply eggs. “We only ever supply free range,” said Darby. “We and our farmers are not allowed to farm battery eggs and so have never even come close to topping up our stocks in order to fill the shelves.”
As it takes around six months for a new shed to be built and chickens to settle in and begin to lay the shortage is unlikely to be over any time soon, but Darby is philosophical about the matter: “At least now consumers know exactly what they’re getting.”