East Anglia: Free range egg producers start supplying Tesco

A GROUP of independent free-range egg producers from East Anglia started supplying supermarket Tesco yesterday from a new �3.5m specialist packing centre.

As the latest packaging arrived at the Attleborough grading facility, the dozen staff were sending fresh, locally laid eggs to its stores across Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk and south Lincolnshire.

And a south Norfolk producer, Ben Chandler, of Riddlesworth, near Thetford, will be the first “face” on the boxes delivered to Tesco by Anglia Free Range, which was formed just over a year ago.

One of the firm’s three directors, Harry Irwin, said that the group had developed a number of retail outlets as part of their overall strategy to highlight local production and locally-grown feed for the free-range flocks.

Since the specialist sorting, grading and packing machinery started in earnest in January, total volumes have increased to about 850,000 eggs a week as more flocks supplied the former vegetable packing site in Maurice Gaymer Way.

“We want to make the link that production is very much local and free range,” said Mr Irwin. “By the end of the year, we expect to have doubled our throughput to about 1.7m eggs a week.

His fellow directors, Peter Davidson and Waveney valley farmer Randolph Ford, were determined to start gradually. It has been a process of evolution, he said. Once the Moba grader with rated capacity of 170 cases, or 61,200 eggs an hour, was installed, the throughput has been increased. Here, Tesco, which has been keen to source locally from East Anglia, helped.

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“They’ve been very good to us as we built up volumes. We started supplying one depot in January, another in February and a third in March. Now, we will be supplying their regional eggs,” said Mr Irwin.

“This is about local farms and a local production story. The crown jewel for us is supplying the regional stores,” he added.

The company, which secured grant aid from the former regional development agency, Eeda, for the grading technology, took over a high-specification building. “There’s no one else in East Anglia who can do this kind of retail volume, so we’ve developed a niche. We’re centrally located for all our producers – reducing food miles and ensuring maximum freshness.

“I think that we can offer a fresher egg than most people because of our compact geography,” he added.

It has created a dozen jobs, which are mostly part-time except for the small management team, until production builds up, said Mr Irwin. “As our business grows, their hours increase. It is our commitment to our staff that we won’t employ new people until they’ve got full-time jobs if that’s what they want.

“The egg packing centre is working five days a week – and we’ve two drivers collecting eggs from the farmers seven days a week. We’re supplying all our eggs direct to the end customer.”

There has been further investment in plastic trays, which has reduced the total amount of packaging, as the eggs are delivered on special pallets from the farm. Each batch of 8,640 eggs, which are packed on farm, are ink-marked as part of traceability, before they go through the high-speed grading line. The eggs are checked individually for cracks or blemishes using special lights and then each one is “tapped” to make sure it is sound before being graded into one of the dozen size lines.

“We carried out lot of testing – I think that was our secret weapon. We started before Christmas with a small volume and that got us through our teething issues.”

Now Mr Irwin’s directors including Mr Davison, who also specialises in poultry house construction, and free-range producer Philip Southgate, of Attleborough, who has five free-range flocks of 16,000 hens, are looking at the next stage of expansion.

“We’ll need a new packaging warehouse. We’re a victim of our own success really because we thought that we would be dealing with one or two retailers with a very simple line of packaging. We’ve actually ended up with several retailers with a number of different lines,” said Mr Irwin.

As free range producers have been able to come on board and give notice to existing packers, it has been possible to step up throughput. At the same time, they also supply other retailers including Roy’s of Wroxham and Bookers with free-range eggs.

His fellow directors are looking to recruit further free-range producers. Having started with 15 flocks, they will have 20 by the end of the year while the existing plant can cope with 45 flocks, packing about 65m eggs a year.

And with the advantages of “Lion” egg approval, which was received last August, the next goal is to secure the British Retail Consortium recognition.