23 December 2011

Consumer battle leads to free-range liquid eggs

Have you noticed the 'made with free-range egg' stickers on some of Woolworths' food products? This is the result of an extended consumer battle for more ethical food production.

Have you noticed the "made with free-range egg" stickers on some of Woolworths' food products? This is the result of an extended consumer battle for greater ethical food production in South Africa. Here's the full story.

It all goes back as far as April 2004, when Woolworths announced their commitment to selling only free-range eggs in their stores. They were the first retailer in South Africa to do so and applauded for their leadership in food ethics.

"From now on, no Woolworths laying hen will ever have lived or spent any of her life in a cage," Woolworths CEO, Simon Susman, proclaimed at the time. The news was announced in stores with big signs that read: “Free as a bird. We are the first retailer in South Africa to sell only free-range eggs. We think our hens enjoy having space to behave like hens should.”

What was not known at the time, however, was that the new Woolworths free-range policy only applied to the actual eggs sold in cartons and not to the “invisible” eggs used as ingredient in their food products. For these, they continued to use commercial liquid eggs.

'Misleading the public'

The truth was discovered three years down the line, in December 2007, when concerned consumers and animal welfare campaigners started to ask questions. On close inspection, they found that Woolworths used battery eggs in all their salads, omelettes, quiches, pancakes, baked and prepared foods, with the only exception being their egg sandwiches – which were made from free range eggs since October 2007.

(Battery eggs come from hens that have to live in overcrowded cages with their beaks and claws often cut off to prevent them from pecking each other to death in their misery and frustration. There is a worldwide trend to put an end to this cruel practice and to allow hens to move freely and express their natural behaviour of pecking, foraging, dust-bathing and stretching their wings in a shed or in the outdoors.)

Numerous complaints followed by disappointed consumers who felt that Woolworths had misled the South African public, but the situation remained the same.

Two years later, in March 2009, documentary filmmaker and animal welfare campaigner, Wendy Hardie, made her concerns public in an article, which was also publish online by Animal Voice, the official mouthpiece in South Africa of Compassion in World Farming.

“Have you seen that big sign which hangs proudly in some Woolworths stores? Did you assume this means that caring retailers Woolworths no longer sell battery eggs, because they know how cruel this method of farming is," she wrote.

 “When I asked a representative of the Woolworths Good Business Journey, why they didn't then use free-range eggs in their salads and products too, they said there had never been a public outcry about this! I said that I thought this might be because people didn't realise..."


180 000 kg of liquid egg per month

Woolworths told Hardie that there was a shortage of free-range eggs and not enough to cater for the quantities required by their product recipes. According to the retailer they need 180 000 kilograms of liquid egg every month to do so and it simply is not available as the free-range egg market in South Africa still is relatively small.

(Liquid egg is basically egg which has been removed from the shell, filtered, pasteurised, chilled and packed. Food manufacturers use liquid egg because of its consistent quality, convenience and high level of food safety.)

Hardie responded with a consumer awareness campaign and petition that spread like a wildfire, fuelled by more stories in the print and online media, and some months later, on 26 October 2009, she handed over a copy of the petition to Julian Novak, Head of Woolworths Foods, demanding that the retailer switch to the use of only free range eggs in all Woolworths food products.

Novak apologised for “unintentionally” misleading customers with in-store signage, and said that switching to using only free-range eggs in all Woolworths products was something they had wanted to do for many years. Despite Woolworths' research showing that SA customers still put price ahead of ethics (free-range products are more expensive) he believed that “the time is now perfect for making this happen” and commended customers who spoke out during the campaign.

“Woolworths is committed 100% to making the switch to using only free-range eggs in all Woolworths products, as a matter of top priority,” Novak promised.

More consumer pressure on Woolworths

The original plan was that Woolworths would roll out the first 60 food products made with free-range eggs in stores from April 2010, after converting an existing liquid egg factory in Gauteng to a free-range egg facility. The remaining 640 Woolworths food products were to be rolled out in stores by April 2012, after the completion of a new liquid egg factory near Cape Town.

This plan was derailed, however, when the logistics were far more complex than initially realised by Woolworths and Hardie was told that the roll-out would be far slower than anticipated. The uncertain financial climate must also have made its impact felt and no revised plans were communicated to consumers.

Six months later, April 2010 came and went with no products made with free-range eggs to be found in any of the Woolworths stores. There was also still no clarity as to when consumers could expect Woolworths to fulfill their promise.

The Woolworths consumers flexed their muscles yet again and another petition followed to put pressure on Woolworths to issue a clear directive “by which customers can gauge progress towards the fulfillment of their commitment to switch to using only free-range eggs in all Woolworths products”.

'Amazing milestone'

Finally, in November 2011, Woolworths opened its brand-new free-range liquid egg facility at Eikenhof, near Paarl, Cape Town, to great fanfare, and announced the launch of 60 free-range egg-containing food products in their stores plus the plan to produce approximately half of all Woolworths egg-containing products with free-range egg by March 2012.   

“This is an amazing milestone, but it’s not over,” said Woolworths MD Zyda Rylands at the opening of the Eikenhof plant. “This is the latest step on our journey to make good on our promise to use only free-range eggs in our products. The switchover will continue until every Woolworths product that’s made with egg, is made with free-range eggs.

“We realised early on that this would be a journey, but it is one that we - and our suppliers - are prepared to make. We know that our customers will be very pleased to hear the news, and to know they can look forward to seeing more and more Woolworths products with our ‘made with free-range egg’ sticker."

Rylands added that the switch to free-range liquid egg would not affect the price of their products. Free-range eggs cost around 50% more to produce than eggs from battery hens because of their superior living conditions, but the extra cost would be absorbed by Woolworths.

Hardie, who was among the guests at the launch, commended Woolworths for restoring customers' faith in their integrity: “This action by Woolworths has shown that it has listened to customers and acted on what they asked for...even in a difficult financial climate."

Even though it may have taken them years to do so, Woolworths finally heeded to public demand and the power of the consumer triumphed.

- (Birgit Ottermann, Health24, December 2011)

(Pics: iStock and Woolworths)

Sources:;;;; Attendance of Eikenhof launch in November 2011; Woolworths press release.

Read more:

Free-range, organic, grass-fed: do you know what you're eating?
Free-range eggs no better in nutrition
Food labelling legislation: will it help consumers?


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