Attendance at the 2010 VIV Europe Exhibition was severely limited by restrictions on travel as a result of the eruption of the volcano in Iceland. When normal attendance should attain 15,000 on each of the three days of the event, there were only 4,000 visitors and 2,500 exhibitors on the first day with a slight increase on the second.

Disruption in travel favored exhibitors and attendees accessing the event by road and rail. Many empty booths, especially from China and the U.S. confirmed the impact on the exhibition.

The semi-annual VIV Europe Exhibition provides an interesting perspective on egg production in the EU since the equipment and services offered reflect the prevailing and future legislative environment and consumer needs. Egg production in the EU is declining with Western Europe deficient but Southern Europe demonstrating a surplus. There is considerable inter-country trade in addition to export beyond the EU which is critical to maintain market stability. Generally per capita egg consumption in EU countries ranges from 150 to 210 per capita, below the approximately 250 per capita in the U.S. Only Hungary and Denmark stand out as nations with high consumption in the EU. In round figures the EU flock comprises 310 million hens with the 10 leading countries holding 85% of hens.

All considerations regarding expansion and production technology are dominated by the impending 2012 ban on conventional cages. Since 2003 space allowance in cages has been at 85 inches² and in 2012 enriched cages will be allowed with a space allowance of 116 inches². These cages must be equipped with a nest, perches, and a “surrogate floor” area.

Colony, enriched cages dominate

Although conventional cages were on display, mainly for export, colony and enriched cages dominated product offerings. In reviewing the products of at least ten manufacturers there were very little differences in either design or arrangement of components other than the relative position of the perches, feeders and doors. All systems incorporate on-belt manure drying and removal.

Alternatives to cages include conventional floor systems with nests and plastic slats as used in the U.S. Aviary systems are popular, and are mostly retrofitted to barns after removal of conventional cages.

It is noted that in the EU eggs are classified according to production system and are individually stamped with one of three numerals:

  1. free range;
  2. non-confined in barns or aviaries;
  3. conventional, enriched or colony cages.

Since the EU authorities, supermarket chains and welfare groups regard all confined systems as Category 3, there is no premium for enriched or colony cages. In Germany, many supermarket chains refuse to stock eggs produced according to categories 1 and 2. This has deprived farmers who have invested in colony and enriched cage systems from any premium and in some cases has resulted in loss of their markets.

Continued mechanization needed

Labor is a major consideration with the cost for plant employees exceeding $12 per hour. Most egg production units are family-owned and operated and are seldom larger than 100,000 hens.

Virtually all production is off-line with transport of eggs to central packing plants operated by horizontally-owned cooperatives or integrators. Since off-line systems are used, there is a need for mechanization at the farm level, more sophisticated transport using plastic flats and pallets and trace back systems which are mandated by national and EU regulations.

Individual plants are generally larger than the U.S. in-line units. The major grader suppliers offer 500cph installations with a high level of mechanization extending from inventory control through to delivery. This is reflected in specialized robotic installations for preloading, case packing and palletization.

Eggs are not washed in the EU. Accordingly grader installations to detect dirt on shells, abnormalities, and cracks for both white and brown shell product are more advanced than in the U.S.

With the recent acquisitions and mergers in the egg packing and processing segments of the allied industry, it is to be expected that transfer of technology will benefit U.S producers.

Impression of US legislation

An interesting observation from discussions with producers and suppliers is a total preoccupation with the results of the 2008 California Proposition 2 ballot. This event has been taken out of context with their perception that we will follow their situation with an U.S.-wide ban.

They appear not to be aware of the 2009 ballot in Ohio and initiatives in individual states to establish boards to determine standards of welfare based on scientific principles.

In recognizing the declining production levels in Northwest Europe and noting the unfavorable return on investment from systems which are operated at low density with small flocks, many producers are pessimistic and recognize the inevitability of importation of shell eggs and egg products to supply demand.