Per capita red meat and poultry consumption in the United States peaked at 223 pounds in 2007, and it fell to approximately 202 pounds in 2012, according to United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service data—a drop of 9.4 percent. In the same time period, per capita egg consumption remained virtually unchanged, falling less than half an egg per person from 250.1 in 2007 to 249.7 in 2012. Dr. David Hughes, emeritus professor of food marketing, Imperial College, London, England, addressed the question of whether or not the decline in meat consumption in developed countries, like the U.S., could create more opportunities for egg producers.

Hughes told the audience at the International Egg Commission’s meeting in Madrid, Spain, to expect low to zero market growth in the consumption of animal protein products in developed countries that already have high meat and dairy consumption. Changing demographics in the U.S. will work against higher per capita animal protein intake. The birth rate has fallen, and Baby Boomers are moving into retirement age. Older people eat less, and their food choices are more influenced by health concerns. Hughes also noted that social pressures like animal welfare and environmental concerns can lead to things like “Meatless Mondays” and the vegan movement, which could result in reduced animal protein intake.

The economic downturn, which started in 2007, has lingered in the form of relatively high unemployment rates and reduced average earnings for workers in the U.S. The overall sluggish economy has clearly had an impact on animal protein consumption in this country. Higher grain prices have led to more expensive animal protein prices at retail at the same time that consumers have less income. Hughes said that this consumer dilemma of trying to make do with less income in a world of rising food prices can create an opportunity for eggs, because eggs are the most economical source of high quality animal protein.

Good news for eggs

Hughes said that shoppers are looking for ways to reduce grocery bills, and substituting eggs for meat is an easy way for consumers to save money. There is increasing consumer concern about the impact of highly-processed food on health, obesity and heart disease, according to Hughes. This has created strong interest in natural, lightly-processed foods, and eggs can be the answer for these consumers. He said that the ageing population and a renewed interest in easy-to-do-cooking are also positive for eggs.

There are some impediments that the egg industry needs to overcome if it is to succeed in growing per capita egg consumption. Hughes said that the growth of retail “breakfast on the go products” that don’t contain eggs, such as yogurts, smoothies, oatmeal in easy to prepare bowls, breakfast bars and breakfast biscuits are providing consumers new ways to get breakfast with protein that is quick, easy and can be eaten in the car.

The standard retail egg display area in the dairy section of the supermarket is boring, according to Hughes. He said that eggs receive prominent placement in the middle of the fresh food department in many supermarkets in Asia. If U.S. egg producers can break the “boredom” and create a better in store presentation, it would be a plus for egg sales.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for growing egg consumption in the U.S. is that eggs are not in the top group of items that consumers think of for dinner. To combat this, Hughes suggested that egg marketers promote meal-size egg dishes that can be family favorites, such as frittata, omelets, quiche, salad Nicoise (a type of salad with hard-boiled eggs like a Cobb salad), and eggs served as a burrito in a tortilla. He said also that marketers should point out that eggs can be a vehicle for hidden vegetables, contributing to the goal of five vegetable servings per day.

Call to action

Because of lingering health concerns centered on cholesterol, Hughes said that egg marketers need to give consumers “permission” to eat eggs from trusted health and well-being sources, such as doctors and media icons. He said that it is important to establish egg’s protein credentials; it “isn’t just meat” and it has a higher quality of protein than that found in high protein cereals that compare themselves to eggs.

Hughes said the egg marketers shouldn’t be shy when touting the attributes of eggs. “In an often scary food world, shout about egg attributes; they are natural, are sourced locally or regionally, have a transparent traceable supply-chain, have no hormones or other substances, and are versatile. Boast about the big three: astonishing value for the money, ease of preparation and predictability of the end result, [which is] a happy family.”

Egg marketers need to establish linkages with food manufacturing companies who value the halo effect of eggs and create cross-promotion of recipes that contain eggs. He also said that the egg industry needs to establish its 21st century environmental/sustainability credentials to keep this segment of consumers happily buying eggs. This same type of thinking would also suggest that ending the animal welfare battle over conventional cages might also be a prerequisite for increased egg sales.

Three moments of truth

Hughes said that egg marketers should focus on three moments of truth. “Get the retail egg shelf out of the boredom zone, make sure that meal preparation is quick and easy, and show consumers eating and enjoying eggs.” To accomplish this, the industry needs to expand consumers’ egg repertoire—quick and easy recipes are important. He said that egg industry consolidation can help drive egg marketing, because larger egg companies should be able to do more marketing. He said that he expects top egg companies to take retail category management leadership.