As ever more countries move to cage-free egg production, where will economy or value eggs come from?

The question has been asked with reference to the U.K. by the country’s National Farmers Union (NFU), but is applicable to any market that has transitioning out of caged egg production.

It is worth remembering that where the Member States of the European Union, of which the U.K. is still one, are concerned, use of conventional or battery cages came to an end in 2012. Each Member State was free to adopt the rearing systems deemed most appropriate, and today a little over 50 percent of the EU layer flock is kept in enriched cages.

But concerns over rearing methods have not stopped with the abandonment of conventional cages. Again in the U.K., for example, while some major retailers stopped sourcing cage-produced eggs long before conventional cages were phased out, those have continued to stock eggs produced in cages have, on the whole, said that they will stop doing so by 2025. Similar situations have played out in New Zealand, where supermarkets have said that they will not take cage-produced eggs beyond 2025 or 2027, and, perhaps most notably in the United States, where industry plans to move to enriched cages were abandoned at the start of the decade following interest group pressures.

So which method of production will respond to consumer demand for a value egg?

Who has the answer?

Within the U.K., which is home to the third largest laying flock in the EU, 57 percent of birds are reared free range, the largest proportion in any EU Member State, but 35 percent of birds are kept in enriched cages. Barn production houses only a little over 5 percent of the national flock.

Demand for basic, value or economy eggs remains strong in the country, not everyone wants - or can afford - free range or organic. Quoting data from Kantar Worldpanel for the 52 weeks to the end of March, the NFU notes that 34% of eggs sales across the major retailers comprised eggs from enriched cages.

Looking further afield demonstrates how different countries have responded to the ban on battery cages. In Poland, for example, which has the EU’s second largest laying flock, 84.5 percent of birds were kept in enriched cages last year, with only 3.6 percent being free range, while in Germany, home to the bloc’s largest flock, enriched cages house only 6.5 percent of the flock, free range is home to 19.5 percent with barn-raised making up the vast majority at 62 percent.

So will barn be the future for production of economy or value eggs?

Maybe not, and the NFU is right to be asking questions and demanding more clarity before its members go ahead and make yet more investments. Will retailers accept basic, entry level eggs from barn systems, or will they demand free range? If barn is acceptable now, will it still be in the future?

EU legislation governing barn systems has been criticized as being inadequate and welfare organization Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), for example, is recommending new minimum standards for barn production. So even if barn production is seen as the answer for value, or basic, egg production, what is currently deemed to be acceptable by retailers and legislators may not be in the future.

While producers may not be in favor of yet more legislation, where they will agree with CIWF is that they need the confidence to invest, they need long-term contracts and trading security from food companies, along with a clear roadmap to ensure smooth transition of supply.

The question of what will be the value egg in cage free egg markets would seem still seem to be a long way from having a definitive answer.