Farms where the early bird really does catch the worm

At the Free Range Egg Company, every chook is free to roam 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

Listening to Rob Darby, founder of The Free Range Egg Company (FRENZ) share a little of the history of the business, it’s fascinating to discover that there is a whole lot more to the industry of egg production in New Zealand than many people would necessarily know. Rob began farming free range chooks for their eggs back in the early 1980s.
Since then the company which stands by the statement that they are the only really free range egg producing company in New Zealand – where birds have unlimited access outdoors – has expanded to a collective of 19 egg supplier farms and 52 flocks throughout North Auckland, Pukekohe and north Waikato.
To clarify what Rob calls truly free range he explains the environmental conditions these flocks live in.
“All our mum and dad supplier farms have to meet our prescribed standard of hen care and treatment.
“Every chook is free to roam in and out of the barn, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Whenever they are out they can access all the space they need to forage on what they naturally want to eat.
How else can “the early bird catch the worm?” Rob says other egg companies applying the term ‘free range’ don’t operate to these genuine free range conditions because they want to keep the hens inside to ensure the eggs don’t become dirty from dirt off the hens feet.
“Sure, there may be a period of time in the day when the birds can wander out of their shed, but the shed’s are closed for considerable periods and what happens when this occurs is that the birds don’t go outside even when the opportunity presents.
“It’s probably not generally understood but you have to train new born chicks to free range to harden them up and that is what our farmers do.” The history of how egg treatment, and even colour, has evolved is fascinating too as Rob explains.
“Back in the world war days people didn’t mind dirt on their eggs. Then along came MPI who stated that this was not a safe practice and that began the era of barn and caged hen egg production and while caged is being phased out this is being replaced by ‘industrial free-range’.
Years ago too the colour of eggs were white as all caged hens used white hens which laid more eggs then their brown cousins.
There were no brown eggs but over time brown became associated with a healthier free-to-roam bird like the reddish brown Rhode Island hen which was more adapted to the outdoors.
When this trend started egg producers of the day changed to chickens that lay brown eggs, to embrace that healthier perception in their marketing.
Once an egg has been laid at any of the supplier farms they are chilled and delivered quickly to the FRENZ processing facility at Pukekohe.
Flock sizes are limited in order to meet certified Organic and Certified Free Range standards. “Our certified organic eggs are sourced from flocks no greater than 1500 birds while certified free range extends to no more than 2000 birds per flock.
These limits on flock size means that the hens pasture can sustain unlimited foraging all year-every year ensuring Joe Public get what they purchase.
“Each batch of eggs produced by a flock is traceable from point of origin right through the processing stages.” Given this, it is possible for the consumer to go on-line, refer to the flock number stamped on their egg carton and see the actual farm the egg comes from.
“There’s a lot of integrity and transparency in that,” says Rob. At the Pukekohe processing site specialised machinery handles the large number of eggs that arrive daily.
Eggs get loaded on the egg-grader which can handle 40,000 eggs/hour. Then they are gently laid on a roller to be washed with a solution no hotter than a baby would bathe in. Following this sanitising and drying stage the egg goes under a specialised light to make sure it is 100% perfect.
“We wanted to assure that eggs are kitchensafe. Handling unclean eggs in a kitchen or restaurant situation is a prime cause of potentially serious illnesses due to cross contamination from the egg shell.”
Each egg is weighed and checked internally and if there is any sign of a problem inside, that egg is rejected.
Organic eggs are derived from chickens only fed organic meal and who forage on strickly organic paddocks, certified organic by Biogro. FRENZ exports approximately 20% of its egg volume, to the U.S. for 22 years and more recently to Asia, Macau and Hong Kong.
Rob says that lack of regulation in the egg industry here means that consumers don’t necessarily know what they are getting and the casual use of the word free-range is a problem that he doesn’t see being addressed. “There’s just too much investment in non-free range egg production here.”
By that he means the eggs sold as free range might just as well be barn eggs as most free range hens seldom see the light of day let alone green pasture.
Having said this though, Rob’s heartened by the growth in consumer-interest about what is and what is not true free-range.
“We’re about keeping to our standards, about welfare and health of the birds and about supplying to consumers who understand the benefits of eating our eggs.”
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