Canada's egg business cracking open the market

After decades on the outs with nutritionists, Canada's egg business is back in the good books. Canadians are cracking more eggs, chickens are busy, and prices are up.

Scrambled, poached, or over easy, Canadians are eating more eggs and chicken farmers are happy

Canadians are eating more eggs, which is giving farmers a welcome chance to crow. (Canadian Press)

The business of getting the humble egg to the breakfast table is in flux across North America.

In huevo-loving Mexico, which consumes more eggs per capita than anywhere in the world, the government is investigating why egg prices, in some places, have recently doubled. Wholesale egg prices in the U.S., meanwhile, just hit an an all-time high.

In Canada, egg prices are more stable. That said, they're still only a few pennies off the highs reached last year.

There's a good news story behind eggs, if you're in that business.- Kevin Grier, food economist

Is the unassuming egg becoming less modest? Will a newfound popularity cause eggs to snub bacon in the hallway like a scene from high school?

Likely not, but all yolks aside, the egg industry is in the midst of a renaissance.

"There's a good news story behind eggs, if you're in that business," says Kevin Grier, an independent market analyst for the food industry.

Cracking more eggs

The numbers show that eggs are probably a bigger part of your diet now than they were a few years ago.

On average, Canadians are eating about three dozen more eggs each year compared to 2007, according to the federal agriculture department.

Indeed, per capita egg demand, which troughed in the mid-1990s at 17 dozen a year, is now approaching levels not seen since the early 1980s when annual consumption was nearly 22 dozen per capita.

"We feel like we're in a bit of a sweet spot for the demand for eggs for the foreseeable future," says Tim Lambert, head of the Egg Farmers of Canada.

The current good times for eggs is a story years in the making.

For decades, a link between cholesterol and heart disease made egg yolks a nutritional no-no. Generations of doctors telling patients to cut back on eggs turned into a tough slog for chicken farmers.

New research is changing attitudes towards egg yolks and heart health. (Photo courtesy Crystal E. Cooper)

More recently, the results of high-profile studies have changed the narrative around avoiding animal fat. In the U.S., the nation's top nutrition advisory panel is dropping its 40-year stance against eating cholesterol-laden foods

As recently as February, nutritionist and author Nina Teicholz told CBC News in an interview that old thinking about the evils of fat are being replaced with a realization that there's a place for high-protein foods with fat in them, like eggs, in a healthy diet — even with their high level of cholesterol.

With cholesterol no longer considered a "nutrient of concern," the door is opening for egg lobbyists to trumpet a new message. The American Egg Board's latest campaign, for instance, features actor Kevin Bacon, while Lambert says his group has put the latest nutritional research in front of 20,000 physicians in the last eight years.

At the same time that attitudes towards dietary cholesterol are changing, eggs are also getting a boost from a broader shift towards high-protein diets and away from carbohydrates, particularly at breakfast.

The upswing, as might be expected, is also showing up in prices. The cost of a dozen eggs, according to Statistics Canada, has risen from $2.61 in early 2009 to $3.28 at the beginning of this year. It's a 26 per cent increase in prices that, while significant, is also broadly in line with more general food inflation. Other protein sources, like beef and pork, have seen prices jump even more due to tight supplies.

Supply management 

In Canada, the price of eggs is also wrapped up in a supply management system for the dairy and poultry industries that's been in place since the 1970s.

Critics of supply management, which sets prices based on the cost of production for farmers, say it's a protectionist policy that inflates prices at the expense of consumers. Proponents argue it cuts down on price volatility and worries about shortages, while also nurturing the country's agriculture industry.

Much of where egg prices will go from here depends on the price of feed, which accounts for about three-quarters of production costs at the farm. The slight decline in egg prices at the grocery store since last year is due to bumper grain crops that lowered the cost of chicken feed. 

Over time, the added expense of producing specialty eggs, such as organic, free range, or omega-3, may also cause average prices to creep higher. For now, though, such products still only account for around five per cent of the market.

In the bigger picture, eating habits, as the egg industry well knows, are slow to change. Now that nutritionists are coming back on side, the egg-aissance, like a free-range bird, may yet have more room to run. 


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