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What's Up With Eggs These Days?

Given the choice of 99¢-per-dozen conventionally-raised eggs or $5.99-per-dozen cage-free eggs, which would you choose to buy for your family?

If you believe the announcements of many retail and restaurant chains pledging to go with all cage-free eggs, then your answer would be the $5.99 eggs. A very common thread in many of these cage-free announcements is that consumers are “demanding” cage-free eggs.

But is this really happening?

Roy Graber of Watt Poultry USA, a media company that covers the poultry industry, had this to say in a recent blog post: “Reports continue to surface about how grocers are struggling to sell cage-free eggs in their stores, as consumers are apparently opposed to paying more for them than they are for cage-produced eggs.”

And lest you think the avian influenza outbreak of 2015 is still wreaking havoc with egg purchases in stores, Terrence O’Keefe, also of WattAgNet.com, writes in a separate article, “Avian flu isn’t the cause of cage-free purchase pledges and neither is consumer demand. Activist groups are the reason for cage-free purchase pledges. The activists don’t want to take the credit they so richly deserve because they need to maintain the charade that consumer preference is behind this. Activists know the next step is to get cage-produced eggs out of the store entirely, and this needs to look like it is voluntary, just like the purchase pledges were.

I, in fact, wrote about this very concept – that activists are behind these cage-free egg announcements – in a personal blog post titled “Are Animal Activists Calling the Shots?” I reported that David Fikes, vice president, consumer/community affairs and communications for Food Marketing Institute told the Animal Agriculture Alliance that “the push for cage-free eggs wasn’t mostly by the consumer, but campaigns by animal rights activists.” 

Meanwhile, there is a glut of cage-free eggs on the market along with a general oversupply of eggs in the first place. This has led to some companies using cage-free eggs as breaking eggs rather than selling them as whole eggs in the supermarket, which is certainly a losing proposition.

So where does this leave us? The answer is a bit uncertain right now.

Consumers currently have a choice in the supermarket, which I have always maintained is the right approach. Choice takes into account consumers of varying income levels and needs. In other words, if you want to spend money on cage-free eggs because you have decided that’s the right choice for you, that’s great. If you prefer conventionally-raised eggs at the lowest price in your grocery store, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, either.

By the way, research shows there are pros and cons of both cage and cage-free housing. Cage-free may offer more space for birds to roam, but it also results in more injuries, less control of the pecking order – which is a thing – as well as more land and more feed.

How long consumer choice remains will play out in the next few years. For now, the marketing-speak behind these cage-free announcements continues, and those of us in the egg industry will be watching and trying to plan and build for the future.  

My grandfather, who owned a grocery store for several decades, loved to tell me, “The customer is always right!”

I guess we’ll see about that.

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