It was good news for egg producers earlier this year, with the announcement that the number of eggs consumed in the UK is at the highest level since the 1980’s, with the nation seeming to have rediscovered its egg based appetite.
According to the figures, from the start of the year to the end of March, egg sales rose by 6%, leading to a record high for egg consumption per capita. The most significant growth has come from the low end market, with cheaper, indoor, colony reared chicken eggs but the demand for free-range eggs has increased too, with supermarkets reporting a 9% rise in the number of higher welfare eggs that they’ve sold.
Many of the larger egg producers are putting this rise in egg sales down to the anecdotal – and more PR friendly – belief that baking is becoming much more popular thanks to various TV shows (am I the only person in the world who didn’t watch the Great British Bake Off?!) and as a result households are getting through a lot more eggs than they used to; Waitrose alone has seen a 107% increase in the sale of medium size eggs over the last year.
Somewhat more convincing is the argument that in these times of financial austerity, money conscious buyers are now looking for a cheap source of protein and the humble egg fits the bill rather nicely, especially when one takes into account the well-publicised research proving that eggs are a healthy eating choice and not the evil fatty things they were once wrongly believed to be.
When these factors are combined with the extensive procedures aimed at combating the issue of salmonella in poultry eggs (which has led to greater consumer confidence) it is no surprise that the egg market is in a much more buoyant position to the one it found itself in ten years ago.
Thanks to this growth more and more farmers are joining in the egg production business and who can blame them? In a sector dominated by stories of doom and gloom, it appears that the egg business may be a beacon of light, with the recent figures merely reinforcing the general upward trend of 2012, which saw retail sales of eggs increase 5% over the whole year.
With increasing concerns about the price of milk (especially in the anticipation of a price depression when cheap Irish milk floods the domestic market when EU milk quotas are lifted in 2015), large numbers of dairy farmers are selling up their herds and setting up free-range egg production units.
However, as is often the case with agriculture, it can’t all be good news (would that be asking too much?) and this rise in new entrants to the free-range market has led to some concern being expressed by some of the smaller free-range egg producers.
With an ever increasing number of free-range egg producers now set up in the UK, there is a fear that there will be a regular surplus of free-range eggs on the wholesale market. As a result, farmers will be forced to offload their surplus stock on the non free-range market; something that has already been occurring during the highly productive summer months over previous years.
As more free-range egg producers enter the business, there is a greater likelihood of this situation occurring more frequently, even outside of the summer months and more and more producers could find themselves having to sell their eggs on the colony raised egg market, at correspondingly lower prices.
This has the potential to undercut the entire free-range setup as smaller farms will find it financially unviable to produce a higher welfare egg – with associated, higher costs of production – if they will not reap the required monetary rewards.
It’s an unfortunate blip in a rather promising looking story and one has to hope that it proves just to be a fear and not a future reality.
If these concerns did come to fruition, it could lead to fewer farmers opting to rear free-range birds for free-range eggs and whilst the new ‘enriched’ bird cages that are used in intensive, indoor colony egg production units are a little better than the now outlawed battery hen cages, they are still woefully small in the eyes of the committed free-range chicken keeper.
So whilst it’s great to hear that more free-range eggs are being bought, let’s hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us, or – to be more accurate – the chickens of the future; the ones that could potentially have to suffer a rather miserable life in a cage indoors.