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May 23, 2013

Cage-Free in Calcutta

Humane Society International/India

  • Cage-free. Erin Van Voorhies

  • Hardly room to move. Erin Van Voorhies

  • At the conference. Information was well-received by attendees. HSI

HSI and local celebrity food writer Salmoli Mukerji recently co-organized an event to raise awareness about cage-free farming. It was held at Calcutta’s Park Hotel, one of the first hotels in the city to go cage-free.

A wide audience

Attendees included chefs, poultry farmers, food critics, consumers, and journalists. By the end of the day, at least three hotels switched to cage-free eggs and began placing orders with local cage-free farmers. Other hotels and a number of chefs expressed great enthusiasm about switching, saying that as more consumers heard about what they had learned, all major restaurants and markets would have to supply cage-free eggs.

It was particularly beneficial to have chefs and farmers at the same event so that chefs could link up with sources and farmers who were still on the fence about switching to cage-free could see firsthand the rising demand from hotels, restaurants, and everyday consumers. Meanwhile, already cage-free producers agreed to work toward increasing supply.

There were also food writers in attendance, representing both mainstream newspapers and agricultural trade publications. It was especially exciting that the trade magazine writers planned to promote the benefits of cage-free farming to their readers.

On the agenda

The event opened with four short films on battery cages and the reasons to switch to cage-free eggs. The master of ceremonies, local celebrity Oindrilla Dutt, gave thoughtful commentary in between.

Next came a panel: HSI’s N. Jayasimha spoke about HSI and animal welfare. Dr. Naisargi Dave from the University of Toronto cited research showing that even the smallest increase in consumer knowledge about the conditions of hens leads to increases in demand for cage-free eggs. Finally, Chef Sharad Dewan of Park Hotels said that he had committed to cage-free eggs and was confident that profitability would naturally follow. It is obvious to him, he said, that the trend is toward humane food, health, and wellness, and that consumers understand that hens produce better products when they’re living healthier lives.

A second panel comprised of Chef Wafab from the Hyatt in Kolkata, Ms. Jhilam from the Hyatt, Mr. Sanjay Mitra from Keggs Farms, and Mr. Dibeyendu Banerjee, a local smaller-scale cage-free farmer, answered questions. Topics included how to increase consumer knowledge, how to help smaller-scale suppliers link up directly with consumers, how cage-free farming actually increases rural food security, and whether chefs detected any difference in the quality of cage-free eggs (to which they answered yes, the taste is superior).

Help from HSI

The owner of a smaller restaurant in Calcutta spoke up, saying that it might be difficult for him to convince his customers, who do not usually eat at five-star hotels, to eat and demand cage-free eggs. Jayasimha promised him that HSI would work with his business to help publicize his restaurant and cage-free eggs, doing everything from providing write-ups and flyers to standing outside with tablets and showing people the benefits of cage-free eggs. He extended this commitment to everyone present, saying that in return for helping animals, HSI would help their businesses, free of cost.

One major idea at the end of the event was to set up self-help groups of cage-free farmers, to better enable them to connect with buyers.

Calcutta has been something of an experiment site, to see if and how this collaboration between chefs and farmers and food enthusiasts, all moving toward cage-free eggs and away from battery cages, would work. Based on this one large event, it seems the experiment is a success. We look forward to seeing where it takes us.