the situation in the UK

In recent years, big public campaigns in the UK – usually lead by celebrity chefs and backed by the media – have caused supermarkets to move over to more and more free range eggs & meat. 

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver did a series of television programmes on Channel 4, called “Fowl Dinners” – showing how battery chickens live and die before reaching our dinner plate.

This horrifying wake-up call, changed the shopping habits of many British people – consumers started thinking before buying, and choosing to spend their hard-earned money on quality assured and ethical products that were good for them, good for animals, and good for the environment – instead of just buying the cheapest thing on the shelf.

Although conclusive studies are hard to find, the nutritional value of free range eggs vs battery eggs is also being looked at.  Small studies have suggested that the nutritional content of eggs from genuine free-range hens (hens that forage daily on a grass range) is superior to that of eggs produced by conventional means. These studies report higher levels of Omega 3 and Vitamins A and E, and lower levesl of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and Omega 6.

"We should all be thinking why something is so cheap, rather than why others seem so expensive" said Jamie Oliver, interviewed on his website, about the “Fowl Dinners” series.

"I think the thing that shocked me most was that farmers have to sell something like 100 chickens to make 3 or 4 quid, to me that's outrageous” he said.
There is no doubt that supermarkets have to come to the party on this, and stop aiming for the lowest common denominator of price.

Jamie continued : "Earlier this year we showed that if you give consumers the facts about chicken welfare they will make up their own minds - and the sales of higher welfare chickens and eggs have gone through the roof as a result.”

The “Fowl Dinners” TV series was followed by another, called “Jamie Saves Our Bacon” – looking at how small free range pig farmers were being squeezed out by intensive and cruel factory farms, to the detriment of pigs, small farmers and consumers.

John Russell from the Ethical Corporation in the UK, said : “The UK supermarket sector is perhaps the most competitive in the world….So if one goes green, the others will try to go greener. That’s a big reason why Marks & Spencer went all-in with sustainability, to make itself stand out in a tough market.”

Marks and Spencer had already been selling only free range eggs in cartons, since 1997 – but in 2002 this policy was extended to include the 250 million eggs they use as ingredients too – in their quiches, prepared meals, cakes, biscuits…right down to the glaze on their sausage rolls!  Other supermarkets in the UK then scrambled to follow their lead.  And now, changes in government legislation around battery hens in the EU, is being thrashed out, with existing battery cages for hens (and gestation crates for pigs) set to be banned in 2012 (& 2013).

So … why on earth is Woolworths so far behind Marks & Spencer on this?  And why are only 3% of eggs produced in South Africa free range? 

Woolworths won “Most Responsible Retailer of the Year” award in Barcelona this year, beating Marks & Spencer to the position.  The two retailers have been affiliated since the 1940’s, and according to Woolworths, they communicate with Marks & Spencer on a regular basis.  So why the different stance on free range vs battery eggs?  Is it because consumers here are less demanding, and less able to afford to make ethical & healthy choices?  Are supermarkets and restaurants in South Africa taking advantage of this?  Should supermarkets even be lead by the market in this way, or do they have a moral responsibility to lead their customers to what they know is global best practice?

Why is the situation so different in SA?

A study done at UNISA by Prof. D.H. Tustin - from the Bureau of Market Research and Prof. D. de Jongh - from the Centre for Corporate Citizenship at the University of South Africa says :

“A largely ‘voiceless society’ in South Africa, due to apartheid and an era of exclusion is being transformed into a society currently showing increased ethical purchasing intentions…” although, they add “ this is not yet manifesting in actual purchases."

However, they are optimistic : “Clear evidence has emerged from recent research on ethical consumerism in South Africa (the first such research) that South African consumers will be important drivers of the ethical agenda….the ethical value of a brand/product is expected to increase in importance and become an essential component in building the future brand strategies of South African-based companies.”

So have supermarkets & restaurants in South Africa been taking advantage of our “voicelessness”?  Are they choosing to benefit from this legacy of apartheid?  Should supermarkets even be lead by the market in this way, or do they have a moral responsibility to lead their customers to what they know is global best practice?

It seems that increased profit is still the dominant principal, and unless consumers start to speak out like they do elsewhere, supermarkets & restaurants in South Africa will resist making the ethical changes that are happening globally. 

The UNISA study says : “Without consumers demanding the ethical value of a brand/product throughout the entire product lifecycle, companies will not be driven to make this ethical shift.”

But it adds, studies show that South African consumers are starting to become more and more aware, and that businesses need to take heed.

“It is imperative for companies to be early adopters of such practices, suggesting consumer preference for ethical products and services.”

So it seems that a legacy of apartheid - being excluded, feeling powerless, and being told to obey authority no matter what that authority stood for  - has lead to a “voiceless” consumer in South Africa, not yet fully informed about how our food is produced, or the health and welfare implications of this, and unaware of the potency of our buying power.  Cheaply produced, battery food is still being sold off to the poor as “bargains”, while more well off consumers are starting to ask the same questions that are being asked in the rest of the world : “What exactly are we eating?”

But the good news is, that as our democracy matures, and people take control of their lives, and start asking questions about what they are eating and what they are paying for – consumer power is set to rise and be a major driver for ethical food in South Africa. 

Which brings us back to Woolworths – many customers have spoken out, saying they had assumed from Woolworths in-store signs and statements, that the company had taken a stand on free range eggs across the board.  Discovering that this is not so, and that they use battery eggs in their foods, has clearly upset many customers.  E-mails, video interviews and now this petition – are all attempts to make it clear to Woolworths, that many of their consumers want them to adopt ethical principles that can be clearly seen not only in their marketing, but right through their product chain.

The UNISA study goes on to say : “brand citizenship is essentially not only a marketing communication tool that starts when a brand/product is introduced to the end-consumer for the first time, but brand strategies need to be backcast to the inception of the product/service.”

“brands that do not respond to these pressures in their value proposition will have to face consumer boycotts and loss in market share.”
Quotes in blue are all taken from the UNISA study -


In a 2007 press announcement, Simon Susman CEO of Woolworths said : “Our customers expect Woolworths to take the lead in the areas covered by the ‘Good business journey’ (yes we do!) and that is what we will do. We can have substantial influences a business with more than 17,000 employees, 300-plus stores, 6 million customers and network of over 1000 suppliers. It will involve investment, but we will not pass the cost of this on and we fully expect it to be recovered as we see the results of our actions.

Yet Woolworths now say it’s simply too expensive to use free range eggs in their products at this stage, and they are waiting for a time when the price of free range eggs comes down as the industry grows.  How does this fit with their other statements?  And what do they think will drive the price of free range eggs down, or grow the industry, if they themselves aren’t willing to commit to it during their Good Business Journey?  Do they expect their suppliers to take all the risk?  Or the farmers?  If international winner of Most Responsible Retailer of the Year award 2009, won’t commit to this, then who will? Perhaps a rival supermarket that wants to make itself stand out in a tough market?

Watch this space! - back to main petition page

Chicks Suffer
Activist link to Chicken Out
Activist Factory Farms This campaign has been initiated by : Activist

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