We love our eggs, but price cracks emerge in affair with free range | Farm Online | Australia

2022-04-21 05:48:09 By : Ms. Iris Yang

Shoppers say poultry farmers should improve living conditions for laying hens, but demand for eggs from free range farms has stalled

Australia's daily egg consumption habit has hit 17 million, but our preference for free range eggs is no longer rising.

Despite more than 75 percent of shoppers believing poultry farmers should improve the living conditions of their laying hens, growth in demand for eggs from free range farms has stalled.

When it comes to paying at the supermarket checkout, the chooks have apparently come home to roost.

A sizeable cohort of consumers is unwilling to absorb the higher prices associated with eggs produced in cage-free production systems.

After a rapid rise from representing about 20pc of all supermarket egg sales a decade ago, free range eggs now account for 52pc, while eggs produced in other cage-free systems such as open sheds account for another 10pc of sales.

Caged hens supply 36pc, according to the latest sustainability report from peak industry body Australian Eggs.

"Cage egg demand is certainly well down on what it used to be, but retail growth for free range has largely plateaued," said Australian Eggs managing director Rowan McMonnies.

"Demand trends in both categories don't seem to be going anywhere at the moment."

While some consumers were not comfortable buying eggs originating from hens living caged environments, he said others clearly had fewer concerns, or had to balance their philosophical feelings against the reality of their household budgets.

A house brand carton of 700 gram cage-laid supermarket eggs currently costs about $3.80.

The equivalent product from a less efficient free range environment is almost $1 more expensive, but numerous other free range brands on the same shelves cost between $6 and $7, or even $10 for organic free range lines.

Consumer research shows about 45pc of people made their purchasing decisions by primarily considering how eggs were produced, while 8pc considered environmental responsibility as most important.

However, price was the key influence of buying habits for 26pc of shoppers.

"I think we see quite a disconnect within the community when it comes to making their shopping priorities," Mr McMonnies said.

"Australians clearly believe good husbandry is important across the board, regardless of whether eggs come from free range, barn, or caged housing systems - and they want our industry to improve.

"But not every shopper can afford to support a perfect world outcome."

In fact, survey responses showed only 56pc of consumers believed paying more for eggs would actually ensure improvements in hen welfare conditions - a sentiment shared by fewer people than a year ago.

Meanwhile, overall consumer confidence in the industry and trust in farmers to act responsibly had risen to 65pc in the past year, and those sentiments were up significantly on four years ago.

A large proportion of Australians also felt egg producers maintained higher welfare standards than they used to.

The findings from almost 6000 adults were part of this month's egg industry Sustainability Framework Report, which pays close attention to what consumers are thinking about the health of their food, egg farmers, how eggs are produced and the economic viability of the sector.

Mr McMonnies said the report represented a formal demonstration of how the industry continued to address community priorities.

The egg industry accepted it had to align with community expectations and deliver substantive animal welfare improvements.

Giving consumers confidence in egg product traceability back to the farm and the use of technology to improve welfare and environmental outcomes would be important in helping farmers achieve those goals and community trust.

A simple internet-based traceability application for farms had been developed, with help from a $300,000 federal government grant, to support the shell barcodes stamped at grading to identify individual eggs packed for retailers.

It aimed to provide full transparency on the production-to-purchase journey for every egg.

Research on free range farms was using machine vision to monitor hen behavior to detect health issues, avoid smothering and identify other potential flock welfare issues, including how hens react to different levels of light intensity.

Meanwhile, producers were also trying to anticipate market demand in volatile times.

Despite a collapse in the egg industry's important restaurant, conference and cafe market during two years of coronavirus pandemic restrictions, per capita consumption in Australia actually grew, by three eggs, to 249 a year in 2021.

"With immigration drying up and lockdowns stopping people from eating out we were very worried about a surplus of eggs, but by a happy coincidence, everybody started cooking more eggs at home," Mr McMonnies said.

Australia's egg farmers produce about 6.3 billion eggs annually, with most of our 21 million layer flock based in Queensland (35pc) and NSW (30pc).

However, COVID has left a considerable uncertainty about market growth and industry planning options, given Australia's population fell by about 500,000 in the past two years because of international border closures.

Normal growth of 1.5pc was not expected until about 2024-25, although 2022-23 may see a helpful jump back to 1pc.

Unease about population uncertainty had been compounded by soaring input and distribution costs, notably fuel and grain prices and general inflation.

"It's very important we get a return to population growth as soon as possible to help maintain the industry's profitability."

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