The U.S. egg market is one of the world’s largest and most lucrative. With a population of over 300 million people, per capita consumption of eggs hovering around 250 and one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs, what’s not to like about the market for eggs in the U.S.? Well, there is that pesky uncertainty about whether or not H.R. 3798, the Egg Bill, which mandates a move out of conventional cages, will pass or not, and there are the ballot initiatives that have passed in Ohio, Michigan and particularly California that set ambiguous standards for layer housing.
Uncertainty regarding the acceptability of various housing types has kept many U.S. egg producers sitting on the sidelines and waiting for clarity before making moves in what could be a rapidly changing marketplace for eggs. In the UK, egg producers have seen their domestic marketplace undergo an almost unbelievable transformation over the last two decades. Conventional cages used to dominate the UK egg market, just as they still do in the U.S., but now over half of UK hens are housed cage-free, and many of these are raised free range.
Uncertainty and change provide opportunity
California Proposition 2’s ambiguity regarding what size or shape cage, if any, meets its requirements has kept many egg producers frozen in the status quo. The happy egg co., a Noble Foods’ free-range brand, has grown and prospered in the UK since its introduction in 2009. The brand was introduced to U.S. consumers in Southern California Ralphs locations in October of 2012.
Rob Newell, chief marketing officer, the happy egg co., said that the company’s eggs are now being sold in Gelson’s, fresh & easy (owned by Tesco) and Ralphs. Stores in Arizona, Nevada, and Northern and Southern California sell cartons of eggs from the happy egg co. at a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $4.99 per dozen.
When asked about foodservice sales, Newell said, “Currently, we are only available in grocery stores, but if there is a demand for free-range eggs, we would happily consider this route in the future.”
The company had 75,000 hens in lay on farms in Arkansas and Missouri at the beginning of 2013, with an additional 75,000 pullets being raised. Newell said that the Missouri and Arkansas farms provide a good central U.S. location for distribution and provide a suitable climate for year-round outdoor access with pasture and tree cover.
All free range
Hens all have access to free range on happy egg co. farms. Newell said, “The happy egg co. brand is committed to free-range egg production. At the happy egg co., free range means that our hens have been raised on a farm with four acres of pasture for a flock of 16,000 birds. Our hens are never placed in cages. Rather, they are free to engage in natural behaviors with daily access to outside pastures with trees, shade, sand pits, grass, pecking toys and options to choose where to roost and select their nesting box inside of the barn.”
Newell said that all the happy egg co. farms in the U.S. are family-owned and are producing under contract to company specifications. Newell was asked how many hens an individual free-range farm might be able to raise and care for; he replied, “If a farm has the acreage required per barn, there is no limit on the number of hens one of our family farmers can own. But, space, egg demand and financing self-limit the farmer.”
When questioned further regarding the size of free-range farms in the UK, Newell said, “The largest free-range farm that we are aware of in the UK has approximately 100,000 birds on it in 10 barns spread out over a 300 acre farm. The average free-range farm in the UK has approximately 25,000 birds.”
Hens from the happy egg co. are fed a vegetarian diet. Humane Farm Animal Care audits happy egg co. farms, and Newell said that the farms have received the Certified Humane, Raised and Handled designation. He said that at this time Noble Foods only plans on producing free-range eggs in the U.S.