A bugger’s muddle

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A swift look at the baking aisle in your local supermarket will tell you that the UK egg industry is in crisis. Andrew Livingston reports

Tim Gelfs’ white eggs, as featured in Eggism (The BV, May 21
Image: Heather Brown

‘A bugger’s muddle’ was the only way that West Dorset egg producer Tim Gelfs would describe the state of the egg industry at the moment.
Walk down the baking aisle of your local supermarket and it is either bare of eggs, limiting the purchasing of eggs or (worse) stocked with European imports.
As with most farming at the moment, costs to produce eggs have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For months, egg producers have pleaded with supermarkets to increase the price they pay so that farmers can break even.
Tim, who has 16,000 birds, is thankful he isn’t affected. He cut ties with supermarkets more than a year ago to sell to North Dorset egg packers Foots Eggs, who deliver to smaller independent shops and restaurants locally.
Nevertheless, the Beaminster-based egg producer has been speaking passionately to news organisations to ensure his fellow farmers have a voice:
‘The supermarkets haven’t increased the price [they pay farmers] – they use the excuse that with the cost of living crisis the consumers wouldn’t be able to afford it. But they have put up the [price of] eggs. They just haven’t passed the increase on to the producers.’

Nobody came
Thanks to the supermarkets actions (or lack of), the situation really is a “bugger’s muddle”.
In April, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) called a crisis meeting with the supermarkets, to be held at the Pig and Poultry Fair in May. Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Marks & Spencers, Waitrose, ASDA, Aldi and Lidl were all invited. Not one attended.
Warnings duly ignored, the supermarkets now have no eggs and are continuing to anger farmers by blaming the shortage on the Avian Influenza outbreak.
‘They’re using that as an excuse,’ says Tim. ‘The consumers are very frustrated. The supermarkets are using it as a smokescreen against the real reason, which is that they simply haven’t paid for the eggs.
‘What we are seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg. We’ve lost nearly five million pullet placings where people haven’t invested in a new flock over the past ten months. We won’t really feel the effects until next year.’

Edwina and the eggs
The national flock has decreased by 13 per cent. Sheds that previously housed thousands of birds now sit empty, waiting for the price of eggs to rise to a point where farmers can make a profit.
In the last two weeks, the cost of eggs has risen in supermarkets by more than 20 per cent – and it will continue to rise as the number of eggs decreases.
‘Already, Sainsburys have been importing Italian eggs,’ says Tim ‘I reckon by Christmas they will all be importing eggs, which is quite frustrating as they are all committed to Lion Coded British eggs. So they have thrown their commitment out the window.’
European eggs do not have the same vigorous salmonella testing as the UK industry, meaning that vulnerable people (children, pregnant women and the elderly) shouldn’t eat these eggs runny.
Farmers are now worried about the irreparable damage that is being done to consumers’ confidence in something as simple as an egg.
In the 1980s the industry experienced a similar situation when Edwina Currie, the then Health Minister, said that there was a Salmonella epidemic in British eggs. She later had to resign from her position due to the damage she caused to the industry with her false statement.
‘It’s taken us 30 years since Edwina Currie and the Salmonella threat in the 80s to get the eggs-per-capita back to where it was.’ says Tim. ‘Where is it going to be at the end of this crisis? People will switch from eggs and go and buy something else and we will struggle to get them back.’
The National Farmers Union has called for the government to intervene and ensure that farmers’ livelihoods are secured, but the new DEFRA Minister Mark Spencer has said that the Government will not step in.

More teeth required
However, West Dorset MP Chris Loder has been in direct communication with his constituent Tim and has taken the matter to Westminster. He gave an impassioned speech at the Westminster Hall Debate Support for British Farming: ‘The Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) – the regulator for supermarkets, farmers and price controls – needs to be given more teeth and to have greater control so that our farmers are not suppressed. Most of my local farmers in West Dorset tell me they don’t want to receive government subsidies.
‘But they have to. And why do they have to? More often than not, they are forced into that position because the GCA is not doing its job and is allowing supermarkets to dominate the field … In my opinion the Government is ultimately subsidising supermarket profits. That has to stop.’
Tim Gelfs is calling for new legislation to give farmers the confidence to invest in producing food. He says: ‘I think the government needs to be serious about food security and introduce some legislation to take some of the power away from the supermarkets and give it back to the farmers.
‘That’s not just eggs, that’s all products, else we’ll be back at this point again when we have another crisis. And I think the crises are going to be more often because of climate change and civil unrest around the world.
‘When there’s fights in aisles over eggs like there were over toilet roll, then the government will step in. At the moment it’s all lip service because although we’ve got a shortage of eggs, it’s more of an inconvenience than a disaster. But it’s only going to get worse.’
At the Westminster Debate, Chris Loder concurred with his constituent’s view on the outlook for the British egg industry: ‘I am afraid this is the beginning of a ticking time bomb. If ever there was a time that this House had to urge the Government to give the Groceries Code Adjudicator the teeth it needs to sort this mess out, it is now.
‘If we think there is difficulty in the market today, I can assure this Chamber that in less than 12 months’ time we will not be in a situation where we have a reduction in eggs available for sale to consumers—we will be lucky if we have any eggs on the shelves at all.’

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