Travel north-east out of Cape Town and the landscape is dominated by wine and wheat. But amongst the vines and fields, this is also chicken country, home to millions of both broilers and laying hens. Here, close to Wellington, is one of the smaller egg players, The Free Range Chicken Co, that has recently made a big FMCG noise with the launch of Ready Egg, the first range of fresh liquid egg products available to shoppers in South Africa.
Convenience meets ethics in Ready Egg; no more egg shells in omelettes or messy attempts at separating egg whites, and all variants contain nothing but free-range eggs. Preservative- and colorant-free, Ready Egg is comes handily packaged in recyclable 270ml HDPE bottles (supplied by Polyoak).
The range consists of three products:
• Ready Egg WHOLE – five standard eggs
• Ready Egg LITE – two yolks and seven whites, resulting in 60% less fat and cholesterol, while retaining the same taste
• Ready Egg WHITE – nine pure egg whites
The free-range eggs used by The Free Range Chicken Co are produced exclusively by its sister company, Eikenhof Poultry Farms, that has been in the business since 1935. It currently has 250 000 birds –1% of the market of 24-million laying hens – but it’s the first significant commercial egg producer in South Africa to convert 100% to free-range eggs, accomplished with the support of key customer, Woolworths, along with several of the retailer’s main Western Cape suppliers.
‘We aim to lead the way in ethical, quality and sustainable poultry farming,’ says Dr David Allwright, MD of Eikenhof. ‘All our hens are free to roam by day and sleep in barns at night. Our production facilities are expertly managed; they’re clean and well maintained.’
And he’s always happy to prove these credentials to anyone curious about or mistrustful of what exactly constitutes free-range egg production.
On this point, a regular laying house containing some 36 000 birds in cages would accommodate around 12 000 free-range hens that are allowed to roam outside in an area at least twice as big, and to lay in nests placed throughout the barn. It is farming practice that matches growing consumer sentiment on animal welfare, but it comes at a cost: free-range eggs are 40 to 50% more expensive to produce.
With a premium already attached to free-range eggs, why would The Free Range Chicken Co want to invest a serious chunk of capex – not much change from R20-million – into the technology that makes industrial liquid egg, and then extend that concept into FMCG liquid egg products?
David’s first explanation is that this ground-breaking step for the poultry industry is about mitigating the risks that go with a ‘biological factory’; coping with the peaks and troughs of animal production, as well as consumer demand. Much like the dairy industry can save its excess milk in cheese, butter and milk powders, the egg industry can do similarly with frozen, powdered and liquid eggs. Hens, too, produce an enormous number of eggs that are perfectly fine, but not pretty enough for the supermarket shelf.
‘On the industrial side, this project is also about seizing an opportunity to supply liquid egg that’s in growing demand by several types of food manufacturers; bakery, prepared foods, confectionery, mayo and so on,’ he continues. ‘Breaking open hundreds, if not thousands, of eggs is an ungainly waste of manpower.’
‘With Ready Egg, however, we’re taking a long-term view on a documented trend. We believe it fills a consumer niche for a natural, preservative-free, all-round-healthy food, presented in a convenient manner.
‘Eggs are being touted as a “new superfood”, in fact – with their health halo duly restored after years of misguided public myth about their role in cholesterol-associated heart disease. Additionally, there’s growing consumer interest in protein; for weight management and for satiety, and for nutrition in general, with the amino acids in eggs recognised as among the best in quality for human well-being.’
Apart from the regular shopper, Ready Egg should also have big appeal for niche markets such as the home baker, campers and the body-building fraternity.
The not so simple egg
The apparent simplicity of eggs on a plate (or in a bottle) belies layers of technology; agricultural, processing and packaging. In The Free Range Chicken Co’s case, it involves collection, size grading, quality checking and individual coding before placing in moulded fibre trays. It gets even more complicated on the liquid side where, once cleaned, the eggs moving into a high-tech line that washes, breaks, separates, discharges the shells, homogenises and pasteurises.
Egg pasteurisation is surely an oxymoron – after all, heat an egg and pretty soon it cooks? Well, not quite. Using standard heat-exchanger technology, liquid egg is pasteurised at a range of 56°C to 65°C which destroys much of the pathogen load without denaturing the proteins. This is abetted by aseptic packaging of the egg in bulk bags and refrigeration. But this processing is not good enough for a product such as Ready Egg that in distribution could be exposed to an erratic retail cold chain.
Thus, The Free Range Chicken Co wrote an extra cheque to become the proud owner of the world’s first commercial, second-generation Wave Machine devised by Danish company, Sanovo.
This electromagnetic technology instantaneously transfers a tremendous quantity of kinetic energy in a fraction of a second into the entire product mass, allowing uniform heating and making it possible to heat egg to just below the coagulation point. This processing can achieve ten times more bacterial inactivation compared to traditional pasteurisers, without influencing the egg’s functional properties.
The upshot is liquid egg that’s as good as fresh for more than 16 weeks or 112 days refrigerated, a claim made for the technology by Sanova. The Free Range Chicken Co, however, is far more conservative.
‘We’re marketing the range with shelf life of 23 days for Ready Egg WHITE, 19 days for Ready Egg LITE and 15 days for Ready Egg WHOLE – but this will double as our protocols and experience evolve. Success in the FMCG world is all about distribution, and this sort of extended shelf life brings great supply chain benefits,’ comments David.
The Ready Egg bottles are filled manually, from bulk aseptic bags, in a clean-room environment. Their processing and subsequent move through the chilled distribution chain means simple white HDPE bottles and barrier closures are a cost-effective packaging of choice.
Ready Egg is being slowly and strategically launched, initially in SPAR outlets. Merchandising is in dairy cabinets and, in the not too distant future, it will be joined by shell eggs in the same space.
‘We’re about to début our free-range eggs, in rPET boxes, in the refrigerated zone. We’re on a mission to educate consumers that eggs are best if they’re stored chilled – they eat better, perform better and last longer,’ explains David.
And that’s not all from a company that’s earnest about sustainability. Future projects will see it harness its hens once past their laying lives, with a new plant being planned to produce free-range chicken stock, gravies, pies and pâtés. By way of interest, these birds (currently sold into the informal market) have less muscle than broilers and are very tough to eat, and hence further processing is required.
The Free Range Chicken Co is a heartening story; to see a smart enterprise at work, with sustainability, innovation and value-adding as core drivers. Ready Egg is but the first chapter, and subsequent ones promise to be equally interesting.