Sales of eggs are rising as naturals shoppers discover that it's OK—and sometimes recommended—to eat them again.
Thanks to smart marketing, eggs are no longer perceived as heart attacks in the making. Instead, eggs—and especially egg whites—have gained a reputation as an inexpensive source of lean protein.
Eggs are a $58.9 million category in the natural channel, according to SPINS, a San Francisco-based marketing research and consulting firm for the industry. While conventional egg sales declined 5.6 percent, organic egg sales rose 16.1 percent, liquid eggs rose 30.9 percent, and egg whites rose 42 percent in the 52-week period ending Dec. 2, 2006, the SPINSscan Natural data showed.
Eggs even have culinary cachet. One popular appetizer at the trendy Wilshire Restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., is a "crispy poached organic egg" on a bed of baby purple artichokes, cherry tomatoes and bacon. And now the value-added egg is the hottest trend: Eggs labeled by date. Eggs already separated, already scrambled, already hard-boiled. Eggs with added omega-3, organic eggs, eggs raised under humane conditions. Brown eggs, fertile eggs, duck eggs.
Los Angeles-based Eggology, which markets fresh organic egg whites, just launched "Egg Whites On-The-Go," a micro?waveable cup of four whites. Shake well, pop the top, stick it in the microwave for 95 seconds and voilà: scrambled.
"For the last 10 years, categories have been splitting, producing more SKUs," says Eggology founder Brad Halpern. "The future downfall is there's only so many feet of shelving in a store."
The egg case is typically a 4-foot set, sometimes 8 feet. Egg marketers who want that extra bit of shelf space have to innovate, Halpern says.
Born Free Eggs, a unit of Radlo Foods of Watertown, Mass., began laser-etching "best before" dates right on its eggs last year. "We eliminated the No. 1 question on our consumer hotline: 'How long are these eggs good for?'" says Dave Radlo, chief executive officer of Radlo Foods.
Now the company is launching ready-to-eat hard-boiled eggs. Cage-free, organic or omega-3-enhanced eggs come nine or 10 to a pouch, already boiled and peeled, ready to devil, slice or simply salt and eat. A pouch of boiled eggs costs about what a dozen raw shell eggs does.
"It's the bagged-lettuce syn?drome," Radlo says. "You have to appeal to the convenience side of the business." Market research showed that men love hard-boiled eggs but women dislike the smell and the work.
"Every single national women's [TV] show we've gone to has gone nuts about them," Radlo says. "Every single person who saw them at Expo East said, 'When can I get them?'"
They're at United Natural Foods Inc.'s warehouses in Florida, Iowa and Maine, with more to come, he says. Long a conventional producer of private-label eggs, Radlo Foods was one of the first firms to make the costly switch to cage-free production and was rewarded with a 150-percent sales gain last year in the Born Free line.
The 'natural' factor
Nearly 100 billion eggs are produced in the United States each year, of which just 1 percent are organic. While overall egg sales dropped 8.6 percent between 2002 and 2006, according to ACNielsen, eggs labeled natural and those touting extra omega-3 fatty acids doubled in sales in the conventional channel.
Natural is a misnomer, however—all eggs are natural—but the term is typically applied to eggs from hens fed vegetarian feed or raised cage-free, allowed to roam the chicken house instead of being confined to stacks of tiny wire cages.
Organic egg sales grew 32 percent, and brown eggs rose 23 percent between 2002 and 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Eggology's core product sales grew 36 percent last year, Halpern says. "We've had tremendous growth, consistent growth over the last 12 years," Halpern says. "People want to eat healthier, and the American Egg Board has done a good job of promoting eggs as a high-protein food."
Eggology began in 1939 as a commercial provider of separated eggs. Its consumer product launched in 1995 for bodybuilders and athletes who down egg whites in shakes and smoothies. "There's no other protein like it," says Halpern, himself a triathlete. "It's the same protein that's in your body, albumin." Consumers also appreciate that the organic egg whites stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to four months, and can also be frozen.
Humane arguments in favor of cage-free or organic eggs have resonated with shoppers in both natural and mainstream channels, Radlo says.
Conventional laying hens are caged in houses of 40,000 to 100,000 birds, and are subjected to such practices as debeaking to keep caged chickens from harming each other. As more shoppers become aware of the difference between humanely raised and conventional laying hens, the price difference becomes less of an issue, Radlo says.
His grandfather and his eight brothers began the business in 1916 in the Quincy Market section of Boston. He joined in 1990 and took over as CEO five years later. "What's funny is how all this has turned around," he says. "When they started out, the hens were practically cage-free."
Lisa Everitt is a freelance writer in Arvada, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 82, 84