Why we need more free-range thinking from our food suppliers

Last week Morrisons became the first of the ‘big six’ supermarkets to end the sale of eggs produced

Last week Morrisons became the first of the ‘big six’ supermarkets to end the sale of eggs produced from caged hens - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Andy Newman applauds Morrisons' stance on selling only free-range eggs, but says more food suppliers need to follow suit

The food supply chain is facing some of the biggest challenges it has seen for decades. From stringent new immigration laws which could result in crops rotting in the fields because there will be no-one to harvest them, to major uncertainty about whether we will be able to import and export produce without unsustainable red tape and delays, uncertainty is everywhere.

Maybe it will all work out OK, we just don't know. Almost definitely there will be some very bumpy times ahead as we adapt. What seems increasingly likely is that we will have to accept lower standards (such as chlorinated chicken) in exchange for access to the markets which we are told will more than compensate for the inevitable restrictions resulting from our decision to leave the EU club.

All of which means that consumer power is going to become ever more important. If we don't demand information about the food we are eating, and don't put pressure on producers and in particular retailers to ensure that we are getting produce made with the highest standards of welfare and safety, then we will almost certainly end up eating antibiotic-ridden, intensively-farmed, low-welfare, potentially unsafe, inferior food.

So it's good to see that major supermarkets are starting to realise that what their customers think is more important to their business than simple short-term profit margins.

Last week Morrisons became the first of the "big six" supermarkets to end the sale of eggs produced from caged hens, and to offer only free-range eggs on its shelves (Waitrose, not one of the "big six", made this move 12 years ago).

Four years ago, Morrisons committed to do this by 2025, and to its credit, it has achieved its aim five years early. Now the chain is promising that by 2025, all eggs used as ingredients in products sold on its shelves will also be free-range.

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Morrisons also deserves credit for being very clear what they mean by free-range: all their eggs will come from hens which spend at least eight hours a day outdoors, and which have nest boxes with wide perches and enough room for scratching and dust-bathing. Given the deliberately obscure terms bandied about in an attempt to confuse consumers (such as "barn eggs"), this openness is refreshing.

The commitment to make this change came following a campaign launched in 2016 by a 14 year-old schoolgirl. Whilst Morrisons should be praised for responding to the challenge, don't for an instance be fooled into thinking that they are motivated solely by their conscience.

The decision was made for sound business reasons; they understand that being seen as the responsible retailer is attracting an increasing number of consumers through their doors. It's a demonstration of the power of ethical consumerism - and for anyone who cares about where their food comes from, ethical consumerism is going to be vital as we lurch into the morality-free morass of "taking back control".

In this brave new world, we consumers are increasingly going to need the help of our retailers to be sure of what we are eating. Tough-talking trade negotiations are likely to result in weaker food legislation; so if we are going to have a free choice about what we put on our plates, information will be key.

Supermarkets - well, some of them at least - are realising that they have an important role to play in this. If weak politicians allow the sale of chlorinated chicken and the like, then the only way we can avoid these abominations is if retailers decide not to sell them - or at least label them clearly, so that we have a choice.

Traditionally, supermarkets have been about large-scale growth, maximising profits and being less than open about their methods. I'm encouraged that consumer pressure is leading them to adopt what might be termed "free-range thinking", and thinking about the longer-term implications of their actions, rather than just the short-term profits.

As our food chain faces relentless pressure from those who are happy to see standards drop, we need to see more of this free-range thinking from our major food retailers, and it is up to us as consumer to keep up the pressure to ensure this happens.