After 41 years in business and a turbulent time during the Covid-19 pandemic, locally-owned and family-run food wholesalers Valley Foods are going to sell only free-range eggs.
Ian Heath spoke to director Martin Mitchell about a momentous decision and his vision of Jersey becoming a pioneering free-range-only Island
IF you sell one million eggs annually, making the decision to ensure that all of them are ethically sourced does not come lightly.
But for Martin Mitchell not only does he believe it is the right thing to do, he believes it is the direction of travel we can expect to see in the coming years – not least because it’s popular with customers.
‘It is an ethical thing and it’s something we’ve been looking at for a while. We sold about a million eggs last year and 60% of those were caged eggs, which is not right and not where we need to be,’ he said.
‘There is an increase in cost but we’re hoping our customers will come on board with that and change as best they can. We’ve had all positive feedback so far on the move because they think it’s right as well.
‘In the supermarkets the battery-hen eggs will need to be off the shelves by 2025, and, while that doesn’t affect the food wholesale market, which is the majority of our business, we’d rather be in front of the legislation and acting ethically proactively.
‘The majority of eggs that we supply are to the food-service market, so hotels, cafés, takeaways and those sorts of people. On our retail side we have our online supermarket and for the little packs of six we’ve gone free range.’
Mr Mitchell said that the life of a battery hen is cruel and this must be brought to an end, adding that he firmly believed ‘happy hens with a happy life’ generate better produce.
‘If you look at how caged eggs are produced, it’s not great. It’s not right for the chickens,’ he said.
‘Mentally they struggle and they tend to be culled as soon as they come out of the cage. So, they live their life in a box and then they are turned effectively into a waste product when they come out because they have no muscle.
‘The reason they don’t develop any muscle is because they’ve never moved around. They’re pumped full of antibiotics to keep them healthy. Basically, their entire life is staying in a box laying eggs.
‘I believe happier animals mean better produce. You see it with meat as well. Whenever anything’s intensively farmed, the produce simply isn’t as good.’
Looking to the future, Mr Mitchell said that he ‘would love’ to see action taken so that only free-range fresh eggs are sold in Jersey.
‘If you could see it when you walk into a café and there’s a sticker on a door that says “Only fresh free-range eggs served here” and you’ve got the confidence to walk in and know that, it would be fantastic,’ he said.
‘You’ve got an opportunity for Jersey at the moment to become a free-range egg island, ahead of elsewhere. We’re talking about fresh free-range eggs, not necessarily the ingredients in a cake mix and things like that, because I think those will come in the future.
‘But marketing Jersey as a fresh free-range egg Island can only benefit us and would be good for our tourism industry. There could be an association to promote it or an accreditation like the Eat Safe scheme.’
He added that he believed Islanders had become more conscious of their eating habits during the pandemic.
‘Certainly, I think, in the last two years people have had more time just to understand what they’re eating,’ he said.
‘They’ve spent more time in the kitchen because they might be at home more and they’re now just picking up a sandwich to eat from somewhere.
‘They’re focusing much more on what they’re eating and, for that reason, I think there would be interest in the Island going free range.’
The outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 has had a profound, and often transformational, effect on many businesses.
Mr Mitchell said that Valley Foods, within a matter of weeks, had to rewire itself from supplying food to the hospitality sector to delivering much-needed supplies to isolating households.
‘Before the pandemic we were 90% supplying food to restaurants, hotels etc and roughly 10% was our online supermarket, which had just sat there trundling along,’ he said.
‘Suddenly within two weeks we went from same-day delivery to having a full week waiting list. With everyone isolating we were chokka because so many more people needed an online supermarket.’
He added that delivering small orders to individual households was far more challenging than bulk orders from commercial clients, meaning extra hands were needed to carry out the work.
‘We went from 20 staff to 40 in two weeks and we needed them because the work became so much more intensive,’ he said.
‘With wholesale food, they’d maybe order seven big boxes. With retail customers their shopping list might be 50 different items that we’ve then got to pick and make sure they’re right, then bag into ambient, chilled, frozen, fresh poultry, fresh fish or fresh veg – six or seven different areas. We’d then split up the orders, collate them and put them in the van and off they’d go. Then the customer might say, can I have my delivery between 5pm and 7pm, even though we might be going next door to them at 1pm. We just had to get on with it.’
He added that workers from a number of different sectors were drafted in to help out, in addition to existing staff being redeployed.
‘Our food-service guys shifted across to home delivery, but that was a big challenge as well,’ he said.
‘They would know where delivery doors are for businesses, which stairs to go up and who signs for the consignment etc but they didn’t know, for example, where Le Geyt flats were, or where number 33 might be.
‘We took on a couple of Hermes drivers and some taxi drivers who were out of work. They were great because they knew where everywhere was. For the packers in the store, we had general managers and managers of large hotels who were out of work and came in to work for us.
‘We had fishermen come in because they weren’t fishing because they couldn’t land in France.
‘This was because of Covid-19 and before Brexit caused issues for them landing in France.’
He described the time as ‘very stressful’.
‘It was a massive change. We were struggling with orders coming in. We had toilet roll-gate where everybody bought 20 cases of toilet roll and put it in their garage because they thought they were going to run out,’ he said.
‘We had to manage our stock levels really well. We were buying some five pallets a week from our suppliers in the UK and we ramped that up to 20 or 30 pallets a week because our retail supplies couldn’t cope.
‘That was also because of what was happening in the UK. The supply chain really faltered and started to struggle.’