As consumers wake up to the false economy and cruelty of ‘factory’ meat and poultry, free range producers are bringing home the bacon while sales soar, according to industry sources
Ostrich — sorry, Pork — Industry Board stalwarts have buried their heads in the sand, threatening legal action against higher animal welfare standards. Meanwhile, the market shops elsewhere, where the chickens and piggies roam free. The savvy shopper and good cook likes to know that the dollar she pays for chicken is buying actual chicken, as opposed to surgically-inflated breasts, pumped up with salt and water; and that her ‘free range’ chicken really has ranged freely.
In the 10 days after Mike King’s intensive pork farming exposé, on the Sunday programme last May, Freedom Farms’ sales nearly doubled. Freedom entered the bacon market in 2006, contracting seven South Island farms and an abattoir to produce an accredited free-range product to fill a market gap; they then moved on to fresh pork and, more recently, chicken, the two most intensively farmed meat industries.
Still only a few years old, Freedom had grown 80% year on year before the Sunday story broke. But last year saw growth in excess of 200%. It was durable growth, evidently, because demand did not drop off as the story faded from the spotlight; rather, it has continued to increase.
On the shopping side of the transaction, at Moore Wilson’s Fresh Market in Wellington, the retail arm of the business deals wholly in free-farmed chicken and eggs. All pork and pork products are New Zealand sourced, and about half is free-range, prominently displayed.
Long before Sunday, this had been the vision on Moore Wilson's radar; they have a philosophy and a history of sourcing all kinds of fresh products from small, independent, often local, producers, including free-farmed meat products. But the Market’s will was constrained, by the logistics of supply. Supply came on stream coincidentally around the time of the Sunday programme, coinciding also with the year the business moved into new premises, with more retail space, allowing them to stock and display a wider range, in greater quantity.
Meat supervisor Grahame Law comments on the good response from Moore Wilson’s customers: they were not just a bit pleased, he says, but "extremely". But owner Julie Moore cautions against generalising from her store’s experience.
Central Wellington in general, and Moore Wilson’s shoppers in particular, tend to be food-savvy, ethically-driven, on above-average incomes. Clearly, a market exists, but it is not the whole market: trade customers — restaurants and cafes —with an eye on the bottom line, are still dealing in 'ordinary' meat, and price-driven family shoppers populate the supermarket aisles.
Freedom Farms, on the other hand, is setting out to prove that it is not just a niche market product. According to co-founder and spokesperson Gregor Fyfe, Freedom bacon is now in around 85% of supermarkets nationally. A number of supermarkets and butchery specialists now, he says, will not sell any fresh pork that is not from a Freedom Farm. “Today,” he wrote to me, “we have had a national hamburger chain confirm that they will soon be converting the bacon in their burgers to Freedom Farms bacon”.
“It is a myth,” says Fyfe, “that this is only for people who can afford to care”.
Welfare concerns span all income levels. Albeit only a portion of the market, Freedom’s market penetration must be costing conventional industry dearly, and ought to be worrying them, a lot.
The demand brings its own challenges. Havoc Farm, which featured in the Sunday programme, could not meet the demand that followed. “We could not just overnight grow more pigs,” says Linda McCallum-Jackson, “we are a very small producer, only approx 100 sows, so we just supplied our regular customers and took a waiting list, this we are just starting to get to”. Similarly, it took a while for Freedom Farms to meet Moore Wilson’s demand for fresh whole chicken; this has only come together in the last few weeks.
Evidently, there’s a different mind set at work here, in all sorts of ways, starting with putting the animals first, not exploiting them as means to an economic end. It turns the situation on its head: the market speaks, but the creatures get a right of reply. So it’s no surprise that, when I ask everyone about the challenge of pricing competitively, they counter with different priorities, about animal welfare and food quality.
Fyfe reckons farming Freedom’s way adds a premium of around 20%, and there’s little doubt everyone, from producer to shopper, is robustly challenged by the economics. For example, at Moore Wilson’s, a Freedom size 14 bird is priced at $19.35; the Rangitikei corn fed free range equivalent is $16.95 ($17.99 down the road at the supermarket), with standard Ingham’s, Tegel, and home brand birds pitching around $12. Twenty bucks for one chook is a big bite of anyone’s grocery budget.
But Fyfe makes two points. First, he says, there is absolutely no question that consumers are willing to pay more for their meat if they have the surety of welfare standards, backed by a quality product. Second, price comparisons are not straightforward, because these are not comparable products.
With the chicken, for example, Freedom’s birds are grown and processed differently, so there’s a different product in the packet. Freedom is challenging all aspects of the industry: flock sizes, growth rates, the birds’ diet. And I needn’t take Fyfe’s word for it, because it’s pretty well known already: even in so-called ‘free range’ production, a combination of reasons, including flock size and density — thousands of birds in a shed — mean that, in practice, the birds tend not to go out or move around a lot. Nor does Freedom subject its birds to forced lighting cycles. “When the lights come on a bird will start eating again even if it’s the middle of the night,” says Fyfe, “but we reckon she deserves a good sleep”.
He also notes the practice of ‘tender basting’, where processed birds are pumped up with water and salt. It does make them juicy and tender, he says, but it also increases the weight. Size 14 means 1.4 kg in total including all the added water; whereas on a Freedom bird, that is meat.
Moore Wilson’s couldn’t give me a percentage breakdown for free range vs non-free range sales — it was complicated to work out, they said — but Fyfe’s assertions are supported anecdotally. Moore Wilson’s says there’s no doubt they are selling more free range pork than ordinary NZ Pork, even with limited free range supply.
That was borne out by my own observation the day I visited, last Monday, after a typical busy weekend. On the free pork and bacon displays, the shelves were all but empty; the Freedom chicken, well supplied the previous Thursday, was all gone. By contrast, Tegel (Rangitikei) and Ingham’s (Waitoa) free range chicken offerings were still plentiful; there were rows of NZ Pork, and well stocked piles of conventional bacon.
And I remembered something else Fyfe wrote to me that morning: if you don’t sell through in the supermarket, he commented, you pretty quickly lose your place on the shelf.
The real challenge here is more fundamental than competitive pricing. It’s about readjusting consumer expectations on availability, consumption levels, even taste, as well as price. People have lost the taste for real chicken, with its darker more textured meat, and knowledge of how to cook it.
Arguably, there are other lives at stake here as well, reflected in the price: if the meat costs up to one-third more, that is because it should, and it will do us no harm to eat one-third less of it. So Fyfe is not willing to compromise: his is an unapologetically ideological stance.
“I don’t think we should be hoping to see prices drop over time,” he says. “Farmers in general do not get paid well for their efforts. We need to happily pay more for humanely farmed meat, and farmers need to be better rewarded.”
“I agree,” says Julie Moore. “People need to respect and understand the value of real food. I wish more people would.”