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HomeNEWSTrendwatch: Home on the free range

Trendwatch: Home on the free range

The six brown shavers came to me as part of a cull involving hundreds of birds. They were released to a local animal welfare expert from a Kiwi battery farm. As it was explained to me, the 18-month-old hens were going through a period in their life cycle where they naturally went off the lay, and it was more economical for the farmer to kill them or give them away than to keep feeding them until they resumed productivity. Chickens live between seven and 15 years.

It took my hens a month to set foot outside the chicken house, and much longer to adapt the outdoors. In the picture above, they’re touching grass for the first time in their lives. Sensations like sunlight, wind and birdsong from other species were completely foreign to them – the first time a tui sang outside, the flock ran for safety, but they seemed not to understand that shadows from a hawk circling above meant danger. One hen was carried off before they learned to hide.

Four months out of captivity, the birds have grown their feathers back, learned normal chicken behaviours such as scratching and perching, and fattened up considerably. Several have had part of their beaks cut off – debeaking is carried out at the battery farms to minimise damage from pecking and to stop the hens cannibalising one another. Opinions vary on whether beaks can grow back, but the hen we named Manky has learned to use her botched underbite to scoop up soft food very effectively.

Most consumers don’t get such direct experience with the dark side of cheap protein. The most commonly quoted figure for egg consumption is that 80 percent of eggs sold in New Zealand are battery farmed, but a new welfare code adopted in 2012 means battery-style egg production units will be phased out by 2022. Stuff.co.nz says free-range egg sales have been rising at a rate of around 1 percent a year for the past decade.

In a 2009 report, Statistics New Zealand says in 2008, shoppers buying the cheapest available caged eggs would have paid an average of $3.63 per dozen, but those who chose free-range eggs paid $4.04 per half dozen – more than twice as much for each egg. The report concluded that shoppers are prepared to pay significantly more for products they perceive to be superior.

Hell pizza is the latest company to make the switch, guaranteeing as of last week that all products used on its pizzas will now be free range at no extra cost to consumers. It has made changes to all its supply of chicken, pork, and some egg products – after working with Tegel and Harmony, two new free-range farms have been established just to supply Hell.

General manager Ben Cumming said the move was about emphasising the quality of Hell’s product.

“Providing a quality product is the number one founding principle of Hell and will always come before anything else,” says Cumming. “By switching to free range ingredients on all our pizzas we believe we are serving an even better product to our customers whilst also demonstrating some of the values Hell stands for.”

Cumming says Hell’s raw food costs will increase as a result of the switch, but says he expects the cost to be partially offset by an increase in sales as customers respond to the initiative.

At the Countdown Trade Show in September, SPCA Blue Tick business unit manager Ségolène de Fontenay urged retailers to tap into rising consumer demand for humanely farmed animal products.

“Our goal is to improve farm animal welfare in a commercially sustainable way, and we want retailers to keep coming on that journey with us,” she says.

De Fontenay emphasised consumer trust when she called on managers to source humanely farmed products responsibly, saying traceability and a transparent supply chain is becoming increasingly important.

“By purchasing these products, consumers support Kiwi farmers who provide their animals with a better quality of life. By voting with their wallets they reward farmers for farming the ‘right way’,” says de Fontenay.

Back at home, following their rehabilitation my hens lay an egg each every day. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest they’re grateful for their rescue, but they seem happy – certainly, there’s now an appreciable difference between one of my chickens and a Whole Frozen No 14 from Tegel.

I’d like to congratulate Hell for being one of the first companies to commit fully to free range products, and I look forward to seeing what its sales results tell us about consumer preferences.

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