Beating the drum for a superfood
The egg industry has come through the disasters of the 1980s, unfounded health concerns, massive changes in consumer tastes and concerns that new rules might not be applied in parts of the EU to reach a point where it’s looking healthier than it has done in a long time.
Chris Lyddon asked Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Information Council, what it’s like to represent an industry that’s doing a lot better than many would have dared to predict.
“The first thing I would say is that it’s a pleasure to work in the egg industry because it is forward thinking, a lot of which is because it has not been subsidised in the past so it’s always had to stand on its own two feet,” he said. “It makes it very efficient, it has to be very innovative. You only have to look at all the different types of egg packs on sale in retailers for example.”
If egg producers didn’t produce what the market wanted, they’d go out of business. “That is why you see cage, barn free and organic,” he says. “The industry has got nice people in it as well.”
Egg production is notable for its market focus. “Whilst it is an agricultural industry, producers know they are food businesses,” he says. “We had our dark days in 1988 with the salmonella problem.” The change has been enormous. “It’s a totally different industry to those days,” he says. “Investment in a quality mark called the Lion scheme effectively eliminated salmonella in UK eggs. It’s vaccination, hygiene and bio security and rodent control, obviously which goes with hygiene. Those factors have are effectively led to that elimination.”
“Cases of salmonella in humans have plummeted,” he says. “Various government reports have put that down to the vaccination programme. I’m not claiming for the egg industry all the credit because obviously the poultry industry took action as well, but we got blamed for it in 1988 so we should take the credit for what the industry has achieved.”
He stresses that the industry has done it without compulsion. “All this has been done voluntarily,” he says. “The industry has put its hand in its pocket and it has come forward with an effective quality assurance scheme and, as important, it’s then gone out and promoted that to you and I, consumers. Eggs are very much rehabilitated with consumers now. Egg sales are increasing year on year.”
“It’s always nice to work in a market which is expanding,” he says. “One of the issues facing the industry worldwide really was the so-called link with cholesterol and eggs. Back a few years now the research came out which shows that actually it’s the amount of saturated fat you eat that pushes your blood cholesterol levels are, not the actual dietary cholesterol you it.”
“Then you had the Food Standards Agency, the British Heart Foundation removing their limits on eight consumption which was a major major positive for the industry,” he says. “Other groups have donned eggs as super food with all the vitamins and minerals. You got this combination of things which has come to the fore.”
“It all positive,” he says. “That’s pushing consumption forward.”
“We are in difficult economic times and eggs are wonderful value for money,” he says. “They are a very cheap source of high value protein. We do a marketing campaign on what we term Eggonomics. It’s a corny catchphrase I know, but it works.”
The egg sector has come in for close scrutiny since battery cages were highlighted by certain animal/welfare groups, a couple of decades ago. “It was at a time where consumers were becoming more aware of animal welfare issues and so battery cages were almost the standard bearer on that as what was bad in intensive production systems,” he sys. “As we know and as FAWC have highlighted in their publications there are advantages and disadvantages to all systems of animal production.”
Consumers went for the free range message. “You only have to look at the stats and see the huge increase in sales of free range eggs over the last 20 years, versus the mid-to late 80s when it started to increase. Then we had a recession in the 90s when it plateauxed. Then it has shot up ever since,” he says.
“I think the DEFRA stats for 2011 show that sales of caged eggs were 49% and non caged 51,” he says. “It just shows what a market can actually influence things more than legislation.”
“Producers have had a fairly torrid time in the last 18 months,” he says. “Many producers will not be as keen as people now will have their eyes firmly open, coming into production in the future. They realise actually you can have a dip in the cycle as well as a peak. Sometimes you need to have been there to learn that lesson.”
“It’s quite nice because our industry’s spent £400 million getting ready for the directive,” he says. “Producers in the UK took that commercial risk.
“We all thought and all our lobbying was based on the concern that there would be illegal eggs moving round Europe,” he says. Some member states had a very large base of caged production. “It was always going to be a much bigger job for them to be ready,” he says. He explained that although the directive was first put in place 12 years ago, it included a requirement for a Commission report by the beginning of 2012. “They never made that report until 2008 so all of a sudden you had from 2008 to 2012 to effectively move all those battery hens in Europe,” he says. “It was never going to happen in that timescale. Then you had the recession, the euro zone crisis come along and it was most definitely not going to happen. Banks stopped lending.”
It was the wholesale market which had suddenly gone ballistic. Contracted prices had been slower to move, but now they are heading up. “None of us expected certain member states in Europe to clamp down in the way they did which has created this temporary supply shortage,” he says. “We’re seeing headlines in the press over recent weeks about egg shortages.” There would be a supply reaction. “When prices go up, production follows.”
“European production will take a while to get back to where it was,” he says. “There again Europe has always been 102% self-sufficient. It’s a very very positive outlook for the industry.”
“You’ve got sales rising,” he says. “Eggs have been rehabilitated. We’ve got the cholesterol issue sorted out, the salmonella issue sorted out. Eggs are a super food and a very very good economical food.”