New British Egg Industry Council chairman Andrew Joret played a pivotal role in restoring trust in British eggs, reports Gary Scattergood
As a dedicated cyclist and walker, this summer Andrew Joret and his wife did the coast-to-coast walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay in North Yorkshire. He is a man used to uphill challenges.
But few could have been as testing as trying to restore the fortunes of the British egg industry in the wake of the 1988 salmonella crisis.
After the then health minister Edwina Currie said the majority of British egg production was infected with the salmonella bacteria, sales and consumption of eggs plummeted.
And to some extent, it's taken the next 24 years to rectify, says the man who became chairman of the British Egg Industry Council in June, after 16 years as its deputy.
"Thankfully, that period is now behind us, but it took a lot of time and effort to overcome what Edwina said," he says.
Joret, who despite takeovers and mergers has 36 years of continuous employment in the industry, played a crucial part in rebuilding the reputation of British eggs. He now works for Noble Foods where he is group technical officer.
He undertook a pivotal role in the reintroduction of the British Lion mark the quality 'stamp' that is put on British eggs to reassure consumers and manufacturers that they are of the highest standards.
Since 1996 he has been chairman of the Lion Technical Committee, the group responsible for the Lion Code of Practice. This sets the standards, which the 90% of UK producers on board must comply with throughout the production process from feed specifications to the vaccination of all hens against salmonella.
To this day, he says, its reintroduction in 1998 (it was previously used in the 1950s and 60s) remains his proudest achievement.
"It took a lot of lobbying, attending lots of meetings around the country and we had to raise a lot of money to fund it and then promote it."
The results, however, speak for themselves, he maintains. He passionately explains how the Lion mark is widely regarded as one of the best-known quality marks around and, on a practical level, how the policies behind it mean the UK now has a health record that is the envy of all major egg producing nations.
That said, Joret is adamant there is plenty still to do to encourage people to eat more British eggs. This is where he feels he can play a part as chairman of the council an "umbrella organisation" that includes member organisations from the breeders, the egg laying firms, the packers, the breaking operations and the National Farmers Union (NFU) poultry committees.
In addition to lobbying government over issues affecting the egg industry, and owning and licensing the Lion mark, his role includes promoting eggs through the British Egg Information Service.
"Our role is to create a positive background for eggs, which individual businesses can build on, if they wish," says Joret, who estimates he spends two days of the working week on council business. Not unsurprisingly, he goes on to add that there has been "a lot of good news about eggs lately".
He is delighted that previous thought linking eggs to high levels of cholesterol had been "discredited" to the extent that the British Heart Foundation no longer puts a limit on the number of eggs that should be eaten in a week, provided it is part of a balanced diet.
Recent research also suggested that people who were seeking to lose weight and ate eggs for breakfast, consumed fewer calories throughout the rest of the day.
"It's almost like a drip, drip effect of slowly getting these messages across," he adds. "We spend a lot of time at seminars and conferences talking to GPs and nurses trusted professionals to make sure they understand the current health issues and can pass them on to their patients."
On a consumer level, there is no doubt things are looking up for the British egg industry consumption is at 189 eggs per capita in the UK, up from 172 a decade ago. But this has been far from a fairy tale year for the egg industry in terms of regulatory, supply and price issues. Price rises earlier this year, in particular, were something that had a significant impact on manufacturers using British eggs products, be they whole shell eggs, liquid eggs or split goods.
"The biggest single issue the industry faced this year was an EU directive which meant the end of conventional cages," explains Joret. "We have now moved to what are called enriched colony cages, which provides more space for the bird, and nest, perching and scratching areas. It is quite an improvement in terms of animal welfare, but it has meant a major investment about £400M for UK producers because all of the old cages had to be replaced," he says.
He is proud that Britain complied by the January 1 deadline, but the council was furious when it discovered that some European Member States were flouting the directive.
Feelings ran so high that it threatened to take the UK government to court for failing to stop imports of illegally produced eggs.
Now, Joret says, the situation has markedly improved, although "there are still pockets of non-compliance".
It was the increase in compliance amongst the EU's egg producers, at around Easter time, which caused headaches for British manufacturers as supplies dwindled, pushing up prices across Europe.
"There was a hiatus when some of the Member States eventually started to crack down on non-compliance," he admits. "However, this issue has now gone away so we don't expect to experience the availability and price issues that we did back then again."
Joret says two thirds of British manufacturers who use egg or egg products get their supplies from the UK, a figure he'd no doubt wish to see rise. He says there is very little to be saved in the way of cost by manufacturers looking abroad, with overheads in terms of feed, labour and regulatory compliance increasingly becoming standardised.
However, an increasingly inter-dependent Europe means there is little opportunity for manufacturers who are looking for additional value. Furthermore, when a problem like the recent poor UK wheat harvest a key component of feed in egg production is replicated across much of Europe, there is little escape from the inevitable price rises this will lead to.
"Wheat is going to be expensive, but this in an issue across the world," acknowledges Joret. "And it isn't just in the egg industry, it'll affect livestock and obviously the bread makers too."
So when manufacturers take into account the supply and cost issues from earlier this year, coupled with likely price rises in the months ahead, what incentive is there for them to use eggs British eggs in particular as opposed to egg replacement products?
Last month Arla touted for business by claiming that pastry and cake manufacturers could save millions of pounds each year by switching to its egg replacement products.
On this issue, Joret is unequivocal. "First of all, I'd question the assumption that they are cheaper. Maybe there is an issue with continuity of supply, but as I explained, that hiatus is now behind us.
"Secondly, many companies which try egg replacers find they are not as good and come back to eggs."
He also points out that with labelling becoming an increasingly hot topic, "egg is a great natural product", as opposed to "lots of weird and wonderful numbers".
Finally, when asked if manufacturers do choose egg, why it should be British, he refers back to his pride and joy, the Lion code.
"The feed controls we have with the Lion code are very important and that is something you don't often have on the Continent. We are also at the forefront of manufacturing technology in terms of providing separated and blended products."
Joret speaks with the confidence and authority of someone who is sure in his beliefs and can provide the arguments and statistics to back them up. He's adamant that British eggs are best for British manufacturers.
"From a manufacturing point of view, the Lion code is a security mark," he adds. "You know what you are getting and you know the safety and production standards are the highest across the board," he says. "We have a record that is second to none."