Egg production in the United Kingdom has undergone a quiet revolution over recent years. In the 1970s and 1980s, almost all eggs were produced by hens in battery cages. Since then, the attention of British consumers has turned towards eggs from hens housed in alternative systems. Three supermarket chains have not stocked cage eggs for some years, and others continue to supply them only for their budget lines. In 2006, the proportion of cage eggs in the UK had fallen to 63%, while 27% are from free-range farms and 5% each from barn systems and organic production. From 2012, conventional battery cages will be banned in all European Union countries. Some member states are introducing the ban early, and others have made it clear that even the new furnished (enriched) cages will not be acceptable.
The move to alternative egg production systems in the UK is truly remarkable, reflecting the tremendous power of both supermarkets and consumers. The nation's egg producers have responded well to the changing demand and the latest indications are that almost one in every three UK-produced eggs comes from free-range. Interestingly, other EU countries have turned more towards barn and aviary systems for their cage-free production.
All this begs the question: where should the enterprising egg producer turn his attention next? At this year's International Egg Commission meeting in Hungary, industry leaders again heard about the importance of differentiation for the future success of the industry. Allowing eggs or any other product to become a commodity will spell the end of the industry sooner or later. In the case of eggs, local production will be replaced by imports from countries where production costs are lower.
Boosting eggs as a healthy food
Noble Foods is one of the UK's leading egg producers, offering a wide range of fresh shells eggs under their own widely recognised brand, Goldenlay, and a number of other brands in all sectors. A decade ago, the company launched its Columbus brand, an egg with an enhanced level of the healthy fatty acids in the group, omega-3. Although a niche market, it achieved quite some success and will continue for cage eggs. However, Noble encountered some difficulties, including an unacceptable rise in second-quality eggs from free-range hens on the Columbus programme. Convinced of the value of omega-3 in human nutrition, the company saw an opportunity to combine the concept with the strong national trend towards free-range production systems. The result Goldenlay Omega 3 Eggs was launched in four of the country's biggest supermarket chains in November last year. They contain the highest ever levels of omega-3 fatty acids in an egg, equivalent to 33% of the recommended daily intake in just one egg. Both long chain omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) as well as the short-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are enhanced in the special eggs.
High levels of these beneficial fatty acids are achieved by feeding the hens a balanced and specially formulated diet, which includes linseed and a small percentage of salmon oil.
Marketing investment: £1 million
Noble Foods is investing more than UK£1 million (US$2 million) in raising consumer awareness of the benefits of the availability of omega-3-rich eggs and how these eggs can boost their own omega-3 levels.
The company has decided to focus on families as children have the most to gain in terms of mental development and behaviour from increased levels of omega-3. Also, children generally do not like to eat oily fish such as mackerel, the other leading source of these fatty acids.
High hopes for the future
Noble's sales director, Geoff Cooper, commented that only about 1% of the egg market is currently omega-3 eggs. "We believe it should be much larger than that. We are expecting an increase in sales of 25-50%," he said.