There's an old saying – don't put all your eggs in one basket, wisdom that free range chicken farmers and McDonald's New Zealand are glad they ignored.
McDonald's crack about 13 million eggs annually in their restaurants and, for the last five years they have all been free range eggs sourced from the likes of Otaika Valley Free Range Eggs. That's about 65 million free range eggs in total – a staggering amount, illustrating the runaway popularity of eggs emanating from hens free to roam around barns and fields.
William Sandle, account manager at Otaika Valley and a member of the family which established their free range farms in Whangarei and Kaharoa (near Rotorua), says the family and McDonald's recognised early that the consumer push for free range eggs would be permanent – and insistent.
"We have never been able to keep up with demand," says Sandle, who estimates that McDonald's makes up about 20 per cent of Otaika Valley's business. "The hunger for free range eggs has just grown and grown and we have just continued to try and keep up and make sure we always have a quality product."
In 2015, McDonald's became the first major egg user in New Zealand to announce it was moving to serve 100 per cent free range eggs in all its restaurants. Sandle says the chain's far-sightedness has probably helped fuel the fast-growing national preference. In the same vein, Sandle's father Peter was a former caged chicken farmer before divining the trend and switching to free range farming in 2007.
Otaika Valley, along with McDonald's other key egg supplier, Zeagold, needed to invest in and expand infrastructure to meet McDonald's demand, with the transition taking 12-18 months to complete.
The rewards for doing so are not just from riding the wave of public opinion. A few years ago, the Sandles took a video of some of the 45,000 chickens they have at Whangarei leaving their barn in the morning. The video showed the birds streaming out of the barn, heading for a day in the open.
The video went viral – ending up on news bulletins internationally. Sandle fields a dumb question (how do you get all the chicken back in the barn every night?) with aplomb: "They are creatures of habit. In the morning, they lay their eggs and then head out for the day about 9am.
"They head back to the barn when it gets dark, settle down and then head out to forage again. Some don't leave the barn – they prefer to stay in sometimes, some stay out at night but most of them are out every day, even when it's wet."
The definition of free range includes a bird-per-acre measure. Officially 1000 birds per acre is enough for free range status; Otaika Valley has 750 chooks per acre.
"They have a lot of room in which to roam, scratch, forage and peck," he says. "They get to do what chickens normally do." They are fed with grain with no chemical additive and he says the farms produce eggs with a firm, rich yolk.
McDonald's NZ spokesperson Simon Kenny says the decision to move to free range in 2015 showed not only that the company had a finger on the pulse of New Zealanders' preferences but also that it realised how those preferences could change.
"Some of our franchisees began serving free range eggs through a group of South Island restaurants back in 2008. At the time, there weren't enough free range eggs produced in New Zealand to supply the specification and volume we required for our menu items.
"More customers began to ask for a free range egg option and, by moving away from caged eggs completely, we answered those calls. Our franchisees knew our move would help create scale and surety for our suppliers to invest, and ultimately more overall supply of free range eggs for consumers.
"We're proud to source more than 85 per cent of our ingredients from local Kiwi suppliers. We realise there's always room for improvement and we're constantly looking at ways we can adapt."
Covid-19 and lockdown provided all members of the food industry with challenges and a worried Otaika Valley applied for the wage subsidy – but paid it straight back. Sandle says baking saved their bacon – as householders in lockdown responded with activities like teaching the kids to bake as well as providing food for the household.
When lockdown ended and those unforgettable pictures were taken of cars jamming streets for long-denied McDonald's food, Otaika Valley went into overdrive to help meet the demand.
Sandle says the move to free range is continuing and that cage farming is beginning to die out as some farmers get closer to retirement and see what they have to do to keep up with new regulations governing the caging of the birds.