Durban - I’m reading a fascinating book co-authored by Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming (CWF) – the leading international farm welfare charity – called Farmageddon, on the true cost of cheap meat, dairy and eggs.

One of the charity’s first battles was to outlaw the practice of egg-producing hens being kept perpetually in battery cages – tiers of tiny, barren cages so small the hens can’t stretch their wings, with artificial lighting creating the impression of night and day to regulate the egg-laying process.

CWF argued that hens are complex creatures that love to feel the dust under their feathers, the sun on their wings and the soil beneath their feet.

Battery cages are now banned in the EU, but “enriched cages” are allowed – bigger cages with provisions for nesting and scratching in dust. The same can’t be said for South Africa, where battery cages are still common.

A few weeks ago, Woolworths became the first African retailer to receive CWF’s Good Egg Award for its ongoing commitment to leading the free-range egg industry in South Africa.

It was South Africa’s first retailer to make the switch to selling exclusively free-range eggs in cartons and remains the only retailer doing so, a decade later.

Carton eggs are one thing, comprising 50 percent of the 120 million eggs Woolworths sources annually, but what about the pasteurised liquid eggs that go into the retailer’s prepared goods, such as cakes, pies, biscuits, quiches and ice cream?

Woolworths has committed to ensuring the egg used in all its products is sourced from free-range hens, but it’s not quite there yet: It’s 75 percent there.

Asked about the challenges involved in achieving 100 percent free-range egg sourcing, Woolworths said in phase one of its switchover it replaced the egg in all the products where fresh whole egg, yolk or egg white was used as a direct ingredient.

“We are now in phase two and tackling the more difficult products, which are either imported or contain a compound ingredient that has egg in it.

“For example, a specialised, high-whip, dried egg albumen powder that is imported to be used in certain confectionery lines. We are working to either eliminate the egg-based ingredient entirely or to change it to cage-free eggs.

“We have set ourselves a target to use 100 percent free-range eggs by the end of 2018. It’s always the last few steps that are the most difficult.”

Commenting on Woolworths’ award, Lymbery said: “Farm animal welfare is rising up the agenda across the world, and with this award we’re recognising the leading role Woolworths is playing in Africa to secure better conditions for laying hens.

“The Good Egg Award is a sign to its customers that their animal welfare concerns are taken seriously and the nearly half a million hens that produce their eggs are raised to higher welfare standards.”

Previous Good Egg Award winners include Marks & Spencer of the UK, which in 2002 became the first food retailer to use only free-range eggs in its products.

M&S worked with its suppliers to remove 450 000 battery caged hens, transferring them to free-range systems where hens have daytime access to pastures.

Cape Times