Eating free-range products gives us the feel-good factor. When we sit back and cut off the top of our soft boiled free-range egg, we look pleased. At least, the egg in front of us was laid by a cheerful hen. It is as if we could feel her happiness through the tip of our teaspoon. There we are, sitting at breakfast table, unspooling pictures of chickens and cows playing tag on pastures, reminiscent of the dreamy panoramas from The Sound Of Music.
But for a considerable time now, there’s a growing concern whether these blissful marketing images are just false ameliorations of a sad reality. What is in fact behind the ‘free-range’ label and how do matters stand with its credibility in South Africa at the moment?
Boitshoko Nthabele released a statement on Times Live, 2014. The spokesperson of the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries clearly said a chicken, labelled free-range, has to spend at least six hours a day outside and cannot be caged. What has happened since then and what does his statement mean in practice?
Nthabele referred only to a draft law, which has, up until now, not been signed or implemented. Thus there is no official free-range labelling legislation in place to determine relevant requirements. These are factors that move past cheerful brand images. Factors which are relevant to consumers as they pay the marked up prices for products that might not be as free-range as expected.
What happened? The free-range market in South Africa is 10 years old and there has been a rapid increase of a demand for any products labelled as free-range. This led to an enormous economic pressure and provided plenty of room for loopholes and questionable practices. These include stocking barns with up to 10 000 hens per hectare, whereas experts recommend not to exceed the number of 1500 birds per hectare. No harm no fowl, right?
Evidently, the problem is not a lack of knowledge, as our country has plenty experts on ethical and sustainable farming. The problem is more that the relevant knowledge of best practice is not applied at a government level, and thus the choice to comply is left to the caprice of the food producer. Although there are minimum regulations provided by the South African Poultry Association giving vague instructions on how to raise free-range chickens, there is no definitive legislation regarding labeling.
To get clarification on the subject, I consulted Lara Wybrow from Ethical Suppliers South Africa. The expert stresses that in respect to South Africa’s red meat industry there are free-range protocols as monitored by SAMIC. These differ just like poultry from supplier to supplier. If you look at Spier’s Free Range Protocol and compare them with Woolworths specifications, you will see that they are different. Whereas Spier’s is quite detailed, Woolworths only talks about the five freedoms.
Nonetheless, Wybrow remains confident about the future. It’s a step into the right direction for her. She believes that the consumer interest will increase the animal welfare standards as time progresses. From her perspective, anything is better than feedlots, battery hen systems and pigs and other animals being kept indoors 24/7, never seeing grass, mud, the sun or fresh air. Nonetheless, she is especially concerned about the low standards for free-range chicken farming.
She says that the main difference between the two (free-range and non) is the amount of chickens allowed per square meter. “With free-range they need access to an outside pasture area. But the problem is that because of overcrowded conditions, sometimes the chickens don’t go outside anyway as they are too scared to leave the food and water because they have to fight their way back. Or the doors are too small so the chickens don´t even know there is an outside area! I know this sounds strange but it´s true.”
Her main concern is that there´s only a draft bill on free-range regulations so suppliers and farmers are free to interpret it the way they want. She works with farmers on a daily basis, so I asked her about her experiences.
“I have come across many farmers who think free-range means anything as long as they are not in cages. But they have hugely overcrowded poultry sheds and the chickens never go outside. Chickens need to go outside in a large pasture area where there is sand, grass and shade which farmers often don’t provide. This in turn prevents chickens from roaming outside. Simply keeping them fed and giving them water and shelter is not enough.”
Louise van der Merwe, the representative in South Africa for Compassion in World Farming and editor of Voice Animal, lost her trust in the free-range label. She advises to opt for pasture-reared due to lack of regulations. Yet Van der Merwe is not only concerned about the free-range hoax alone. Her concern lies in the lack of transparency in the industry altogether. She demands that all battery eggs receive specific identification because laying hens in tiny wire battery cages has become the norm in South Africa.
Van der Merwe acknowledges Woolworths efforts as they are the only supermarket chain so far to have heeded the call to go cage-free. She salutes Woolworths for banning all battery eggs in all their stores nation-wide. In her eyes, this is a huge step forward for ethical shopping even if the eggs are not pasture-reared. Owing to the lack of credibility in food labeling, she urges Woolworths and other retailers to take the next step towards pasture-reared.
The department of trade and industry has become aware of the economic, ethical and health challenges which mislabeling of food produce causes. This motivated them to host a Consumer Protection Seminar, on the 25 November 2015 in partnership with the National Consumer Commission to not only address the consequences of noncompliance of mislabelling, but also to discuss strategies to tackle the issue. The ultimate goal is to effectively enforce food labeling regulations in the country.
Van der Merwe has lobbied strenuously for eggs from battery cages to be labeled as ‘cage eggs’. At the Food Labelling and Consumer Protection Seminar in Tshwane later this month, she will continue her fight for truth in labeling.
As long as there is no food labelling legislation in place, the industry will make use of the loopholes as the absence of regulations is an irresistible opportunity to increase profits. Until then, the consumer is left to trust food producers, suppliers and their auditors who set their own standards.
The label ‘free-range’ has dwindled into a vague and inconsistent term with an increasingly crumbling credibility. This is why I encourage consumers to buy from the farms that are most transparent about how they raise their animals. Consumers can then decide if the standards are good enough for them or not.
Dennis Molewa is the man behind the food blog, Molewa’s Kitchen.