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22 November 2022updated 10 Feb 2023 12:00pm

“People want to buy and source locally now”

Working with farms like the Lakes Free Range Egg Company boosts food quality, local economies and sustainability.

In Stainton, a small village near Penrith, Cumbria, stands a 150-year-old farm that prides itself on supplying free-range eggs. In 1989 former air force pilot David Brass returned to the farm where he was born – which was originally a dairy, beef and sheep farm – and took over the family business with his wife, Helen. The pair made their first foray into poultry when they farmed turkeys for Christmas markets in the 1990s. By 1997 they had set up The Lakes Free Range Egg Company, where they farm free-range laying hens.

The business is McDonald’s longest-standing UK supplier of free-range eggs, having worked with the chain for the past 20 years. McDonald’s only uses free-range eggs across its entire menu, in items like the Sausage & Egg McMuffin®. The company also uses only organic milk in its coffee, tea and happy-meal milk bottles. Working with UK-based suppliers with the same attitude to sourcing high-quality and sustainable ingredients is crucial.

McDonald’s works with more than 23,000 British and Irish farmers to provide ingredients for its menu, and spends more than £1bn every year on sourcing food from its British supply chain. David says that McDonald’s has very high technical standards around quality and sustainability – so much so, that the Lakes Farm had to enhance a number of its processes to meet McDonald’s standards over the two years before becoming a supplier to the brand.

“You tend to find McDonald’s are very loyal to their supplier base,” he says. “They don’t change suppliers often, because
they have difficult technical standards to achieve.”

Being a McDonald’s supplier has really helped improve how the farm is run, Helen adds, including by encouraging the pair to bring more resource and expertise into their team to keep improving their output.

“[Being a McDonald’s supplier] has been a huge benefit really,” she says. “The business has helped us to professionalise a lot of our standards and made us think more to the future. Within the food industry, the bar to supply for McDonald’s is very, very high.”

Quality of produce is intrinsically linked with animal welfare, and McDonald’s has helped the Lakes farm develop in this area, too. In collaboration with the company, the farm worked with the sustainability group the Farm Animal Initiative (FAI) on a major piece of research over four years, which showed how planting trees in bird ranges on farms was beneficial for welfare, as the tree cover makes the hens feel safe from predators, meaning they range further and are more active. The Lakes subsequently implemented this, planting more trees to enhance welfare and improve the quality of produce.

The relationship with the FAI has also resulted in research into how innovation can improve the well-being of the farm’s chickens. For instance, working with Newcastle University, the farm has tested and implemented digital systems that monitor acoustics in chicken ranges, which analyse the animals’ vocalisations to understand if they are stressed or unhappy.

“The farmer can’t be there 24 hours a day whereas a computer can,” says David. Innovation is a vital part of McDonald’s Farm Forward programme – the company’s initiative to support UK farmers, raise animal welfare and sustainability standards, and make environmental improvements. A core part of achieving this is investing in new technology.

Beyond quality and animal welfare, sourcing ingredients from within the UK also helps to boost local economies. The Lakes is now one of the biggest employers in its area. This has a domino effect, as the farm also works with other producer farms at its packaging station, which employ even more people. By working with other businesses locally, they in turn support the staff that those farmers employ. “Economically, that puts a lot back into the local community,” says Helen.

The symbiotic relationship with McDonald’s has also allowed the Lakes to up-skill and educate the local community. “As the company grows, it allows you to do stuff you never would have thought about doing when you were a smaller company,” says David. This includes teaching young people about agriculture and sustainability, from tree-planting workshops for primary school children through to farming robotics tutorials for A-level students.

The farm has also taken part in McDonald’s Progressive Young Farmer programme – an initiative to help young people kick-start their career in the food and farming industry by spending a year experiencing the McDonald’s supply chain, from farm to front counter. In the Lakes’ case, the programme has fed into employment; one participant returned to the farm after graduating from university for a permanent role.

Ultimately, sourcing nationally and sustainably not only benefits farms, local communities and customers, but McDonald’s too. Working with farms like the Lakes contributes to the company’s Plan for Change, the business’s sustainability plan. This has a positive impact across the supply chain and in local communities, right through to the food served in McDonald’s restaurants.

For people in Stainton, the fact that David and Helen’s farm is a McDonald’s supplier gives local customers reassurance about the origins of their food. “Perceptions have changed since Covid, people want to buy and source locally now,” says Helen. “If people know that Helen and David’s eggs go to McDonald’s, then every time they go [to a McDonald’s restaurant], it brings that story home, and makes them think that somebody they know might have packed those eggs or might be eating them now too.”

*Since these interviews were conducted (and footage was filmed), in accordance with government guidelines and the national housing order introduced for all birds across England, all hens at the Lakes are being temporarily housed in barn.

Read more: “As a farming family, we have a part to play in sustainability”

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