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Celebrity chef misses the point on organic & free-range

Writing in Sunday's Mail on Sunday (Sunday 9th September), celebrity chef and restaurateur, Marco Pierre White, lauded an American report that suggested that organic food was no more nutritious than intensively farmed food and argued that this was good news for consumers. He went on to claim families were being bullied by an 'organic lobby' to buy free-range and organic produce they could ill afford.

What he failed to address was the other benefits of organic agriculture, such as higher welfare standards in the EU, reduced exposure to pesticides and reduced risk of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria that matter to people of all incomes.

In his article 'If the smug organic mob get their way, millions of families will never again be able to afford roast chicken for Sunday lunch' Marco asked: "And if all eggs were free-range what would happen to the price of biscuits or Hellmann's mayonnaise?"

We can certainly help Marco with that question. Hellmann's in Europe began the switch to free-range eggs in their mayonnaise in 2008 and have been a proud recipient of a Compassion 'Good Egg Award' to recognise this achievement. As for biscuits - Waitrose, Sainsbury's and the The Co-operative (also all 'Good Egg Award' winners) - have all used cage-free eggs in their own-brand products for a number of years, so there shouldn't be much difficulty in finding a cage-free biscuit on the high street. The fact that Mr White has not noticed any hike in prices would suggest that the cost of this switch to cage-free to the consumer has been negligible.

Mr White also defends his choice to take his children to McDonalds, rather than a more expensive alternative, as he believes in value for money. In this instance, he may be making a better choice. If his child were to choose a carton of milk to go with their McNuggets, it would be organic. McDonalds is another company Compassion has worked closely with - and that has used free-range shell eggs throughout their menu for over 10 years. They also use organic milk in their teas, coffees and porridge across the UK and Ireland.

The fact is, large corporations are beginning to take animal welfare, and the effects of intensive farming on the environment seriously. In America, where sow stalls remain legal in the majority of states, recent commitments from huge brands such as McDonalds, Burger King, Costco, Subway, Denny's and Campbell's Soups, to phase out working with producers that use sow stalls within the next 10 to 15 years will see farmers moving away from the practice. This sea change has been lead by the demands of the consumer, and campaign groups who have highlighted the toll intensive farming takes on animals, rather than the legislative approach taken in Europe.

These successful brands have clearly identified the concerns of their customers, and have found ways to introduce higher welfare, more ethical foods without compromising on price and value.

In his article, Mr White says he is interested in the provenance of his foods, recommending local produce for those who can afford it. But this need not be a privilege of the rich. What food producers and retailers are beginning to identify is that all consumers should have a right to care, and a choice about where their food comes from, regardless of budget. Compassion in World Farming works with companies with these aspirations to help them move towards better standards.