I found a few articles in local papers, and a summary page about the planning application,but not much in the way of specific details. I did however discover that the applicant, Richard Corbett, is currently a director of 9 companies; his longest-held position is 13 years with Organic Farmers And Growers C.I.C., "one of the UK’s leading organic certifiers, working with producers and processors to ensure their products meet the highest organic standards." I couldn't help thinking that Mr Corbett's current plans suggest that he hasn't fully embraced the organic ethos.
Today, I found my attention turning towards what does it actually mean to say that an egg - or a chicken - is 'free range'. Again, a quick google search will throw up a multitude of media horror stories of poultry farms that technically meet the 'free range' standards, but are a far cry from what most consumers imagine when they think of free range. And of course, this is an almost inevitable result of the huge increase in demand for free range eggs. When the market was restricted to a few bleeding-heart eccentrics, the demand could conceivably have been met by small-scale producers with a genuine interest in animal welfare. It should have been obvious that this could not continue to be the case as the market exploded to its current levels.
And this brings me back to one of my three recurring preoccupations - scale. I found a really interesting article from Henley Business School, written in 2007. It's called "The chicken, the factory farm and the supermarket: the emergence of the modern poultry industry in Britain". It notes that "the British poultry population expanded during the 1930s as demand for fresh eggs grew. The flocks were small, typically only around 200-400 birds, and were fed off farmyard scraps." If you're wondering how we got from flocks of a couple of hundred to Mr Corbett's proposed facility that will house just under half a million hens, this article will give you an idea (and also traces the role played by Sainsbury's in the development of the factory-farmed chicken industry).
According to an article on the Poultry Site, in 2007, there were 35,800 producers with flocks of less than a thousand birds - over 95% of the total number of producers. But these small-scale producers were only responsible for 3.8% of total egg production, while a mere 400 producers with flocks of over 20,000 accounted for 78% of the total. I find that quite a sobering thought.
There's another major change that's taken place since the mid-20th century. Again quoting from the article cited above,
"an egg-producing industry needed chickens, for a hen’s productive life lasted around two years. And while there were some small commercial hatcheries, most egg-laying flocks reproduced themselves. This inevitably led to the production of surplus cockerel chicks all around the country. It was these young cockerel chicks (males) that supplied the early demand for small “roasters”. The older “spent”, or redundant, layers were mostly only fit for the pot. Apart from some imports from chicken farms in Hungary, Lithuania and Russia, the chicken supplied to British households in the 1940s was overwhelmingly a by-product of these egg-laying flocks."
Today, separate breeds are used for egg production and chicken meat. This means that all the male chicks produced by the egg-production breeds are surplus to requirements and are destroyed at one or two days old by gassing or being ground up. (Ever wondered what that curious-sounding occupation 'chicken sexer' was all about? - well, now you know.) However, some new technologies which can detect the sex of an egg a few days after it's laid are on the horizon - I’ve only just discovered this in the last few minutes, so won’t comment further at present.
I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years now. I don’t see myself going vegan, but I’ve had long-standing concerns about egg production. When free range eggs first appeared on the market, they seemed to be the answer. Now, it all seems a bit more complicated. I’ve been fascinated by the recent series ‘Inside the Factory’, showing how millions of cans of beans, packets of crisps and boxes of cornflakes are made at incredibly high speeds on amazing high-tech production lines. But I remain sceptical that very large scale production practices can ever be compatible with the welfare standards appropriate to living creatures. I rarely buy fresh eggs at all these days, though I would gladly do so if I could find a source I had full confidence in. And I confess I still buy foods, such as cakes, pasta and vegetarian ready meals, that include free range egg on their ingredient lists.
I hope you’re not expecting a conclusion, because there isn’t one. I’m just recording some of my thoughts and concerns, and some of the interesting things I’ve found on my little journey of discovery around the web this weekend. I’d be interested to know what you think! (if you're not logged in as a LiveJournal member, please stick your name or initials at the end of your post to give me a clue who I'm talking to.)