On the ground - Shepparton FoodShare and Rainbow Eggs
Food safety is critical in egg production and is the primary focus of egg farmers.
Community confidence in food safety was recognised in the CSIRO research findings as a driver of community trust in the egg industry, making it clear that unless the industry can produce eggs that are safe and are recognised as safe, then it cannot be sustainable.
Community recognition of the strict food safety standards applied in the egg industry increased in the 2019 CSIRO research findings, despite there being a number of food safety incidents in early
2019. These cases related to a form of Salmonella that is not usually present in Australia, Salmonella Enteritidis (SE).
This is likely to reflect an awareness of the food safety regulatory regime, along with the strong response to the incidents by government and industry, to ensure that impacted products were removed from shelves and the public informed of how to avoid the risks. It seems it’s not so much whether things go wrong, but how you respond to them.
The threat of SE is unavoidable as it is common in other countries, and the level of travel and shipping to Australia makes introduction inevitable from time to time. The objective is to ensure that systems are in place so that if egg farms do have contact with SE, it can be eradicated quickly and kept out of the food system.
Across 2019, the egg industry developed a work program to ensure that the industry and community will be better protected from the new threat to biosecurity and food safety posed by SE. This includes work on response plans and steps for the decontamination of farms to ensure Australia can remain free from SE. These steps are very practical and relate to controlling movements of people and pests on farms to prevent SE being introduced, and constant disinfecting of equipment to ensure bacteria do not have the right conditions to grow.
The industry is also investing in research to develop longer term solutions just in case SE was to become common in Australia in the future. Other countries such as the United Kingdom have used vaccines, heat treatment of feed, and strict traceability to manage SE effectively. The Australian industry is taking steps to draw on this experience to ensure it has effective solutions to maintain the safety of eggs.
The greatest contribution of the egg industry is the provision of an accessible food staple that meets the nutritional needs of the community.
Eggs are not new and have long been recognised as a healthy source of nutrition but the contribution they can make to community health outcomes is not static.
As we continue to learn more about human nutritional needs, new contexts emerge in which eggs can provide benefits. Most recently the egg industry has been considering the importance of choline, a nutrient for which deficiency is very common. New scientific research indicates that choline plays an important role in brain and spinal chord development which is critical during pregnancy, childhood and potentially, cognitive decline in the elderly.
Not all foods contain choline and eggs - particularly egg yolks - are a good source, containing around double the choline levels of other common foods in the Australian diet. As a new issue, many aspects of choline are not fully understood and the Australian egg industry is investing in further research to bring clarity to choline requirements and how eggs could contribute in improving health outcomes.
The industry has also been exploring how it can contribute to emerging health issues such as malnutrition. Given the abundance of healthy food in Australia it is surprising and concerning
that malnutrition is increasing. This involves a large number of Australians that do not enjoy food security, as well as those that overconsume high energy foods that lack vitamins and nutrients, often translating to obesity or being overweight.
The egg industry is exploring the role eggs can play in addressing malnutrition by testing the extent to which eggs can reduce overeating through satiety, the sensation of being satisfied or ‘full’. This research will take a sample of obese Australians and introduce the regular consumption of eggs to the diet over a six month period. It is hoped the results will confirm multiple benefits in the form of improved nutrition levels and body composition.
Providing information about the egg industry is crucial to building community trust.
The egg industry is shaped by consumer choice. Where there is demand for a category of eggs, egg farmers will produce them to the volume required. Where there is not, egg farmers are not able to risk their livelihoods by pushing on regardless.
The substantial growth in free range egg production over the last 15 years has been a remarkable achievement by the industry but it is largely consumer driven.
The most important aspect of consumer choice is that it must be informed. While most consumers do not have the time to investigate how products are produced, community trust and the long term sustainability of the egg industry depends upon accurate information on industry practices being readily available.
The egg industry has shared information on the nature of egg farming for many years and the key aspects of cage, barn and free range production systems are generally well understood. However, the explosion in available information through social media and smartphone use has reset expectations as to the level of information that should be available to the community.
Corporate approaches that focus exclusively on positive aspects are seen as inadequate. The egg industry has sought to respond to this by providing higher levels of transparency on farming practices through more engaging mediums.
Most recently, the industry has invested in a virtual reality egg farming experience that is available in the form of a fully immersive virtual tour, as well as a more accessible video format for desktop and smart phone use.
The VR experience allows users to select aspects of the farm to explore and move the camera focus on areas of interest. The effect is that the public is provided with a good sense of how egg farming works, and the industry has an additional engagement tool to build community understanding of the practicalities of farming.
Importantly, this approach provides a comprehensive overview of egg farms, providing insights into the broader context of egg farming as well as the nature of laying sheds and the living conditions of hens, which cannot be easily accessed by the public for biosecurity reasons.
This includes intensive cage, barn and free range farming systems that supply the majority of the eggs required to meet consumer demand, bridging the gap between community interest and understanding as to where their food comes from.