The Hunt for a Perfect Egg

November 6, 2013

The Hunt for a Perfect Egg

How Does an Egg Company Make a Healthier Egg? Start With the Chicken

by Sarah Nassauer, Wall Street Journal

This article appeared on Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2013

In a small lab on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Bart Slaugh is working to build a better egg.

He is the quality assurance and laboratory director for egg seller Eggland’s Best, and it is his job is to make the humble egg something an average food shopper will pay more for.

Until recently, sales of regular eggs have been mostly flat or falling for decades. For many consumers, eggs are simply a household staple, something to sit down and eat scrambled with a fork-a no-no for today’s on-the-go eating style.

Now the industry is getting a boost from rising sales of eggs which tout various attributes on their labels: organic, extra omega-3s or cage free. These “specialty eggs,” as they are known in the industry, are sold at a premium, which means egg producers, sellers, and grocery chains all want to find ways to sell more. Organic eggs tend to be the most expensive on shelves, while those with added nutrients are the top sellers among specialty varieties.

To drive sales, Mr. Slaugh has experimented with hundreds of hen-feed recipes, adding ingredients that may increase fatty acids, vitamins or the buttery taste of yolks in eggs. He tweaks the recipe so shells are uniform and strong, as about 80% of consumers open an egg carton before buying, according to company research.

A longtime quest: To get enough calcium into eggs to brag about it on the label. Executives believe calcium is an appealing claim to most buyers, especially women. The average egg has about 28 milligrams of calcium-about 3% of the recommended daily intake of calcium for people ages 19 to 50-concentrated primarily in the yolk. The company wants to increase the calcium level to 10% of the daily value, which is the level required by the Food and Drug Administration to put a “good source of” claim on labels. So far, that goal has proved elusive.

In the 1990s, in the wake of consumer alarm over high cholesterol in eggs, Eggland’s Best touted that its chickens were fed an all-vegetarian diet that produced eggs with less saturated fat than traditional eggs. Later, it introduced eggs with extra vitamin E and omega-3s. (Eating omega-3s can lower triglycerides in the blood, which are linked to heart disease.) It wanted to turn eggs into a food seen as healthy, says Charlie Lanktree, chief executive and founder of Eggland’s Best, based in Jeffersonville, Pa.

Building a Better Egg

Freshly laid eggs from free range chickens at a farm in Bovina, New York. Eggs of different colors come from different chicken varieties, but are nutritionally the same.   

The average American ate about 400 eggs a year in the 1940s. By the 1980s, consumption was nearly half that, and continued to fall until recently. These days, fewer consumers see eggs as cholesterol hazards and instead buy them as a cheap, natural source of protein, Mr. Lanktree says.

The most popular way to eat eggs is scrambled, followed by fried and then eaten as part of a breakfast sandwich, according to NPD Group, a consumer research firm.

Specialty egg sales are up 13.5% by volume through mid-May this year, while egg sales overall are up 2.5%, according to data from Nielsen cited in an investor presentation earlier this year by Cal-Maine Foods, the largest shell-egg producer in the U.S., which produces eggs sold under other labels including Eggland’s Best. Dolph Baker, Cal-Maine’s CEO and president, told financial analysts last year it planned to increase sales of high-margin specialty eggs.

“We are looking at carrying as many as possible,” says Mark Nelson, senior dairy buyer for Meijer Inc., of organic, cage-free, extra omega-3 and other specialty eggs. The Midwestern grocery and home-goods chain is increasingly fielding calls from shoppers interested in animal welfare and the ingredients in chicken feed, he says. Most consumers don’t “understand the different definitions around those terms,” he says, but sales are rising, taking market share from traditional eggs, which make up about 80% of sales, Mr. Nelson says.

Eggs marked as “certified organic” must be from chickens that eat organically raised feed and have “access” to the outdoors, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. Products marked “cage free,” “free range” and terms that reference how hens live aren’t well defined nationally.

U.K.-based Noble Foods, which introduced its free-range eggs in the U.S. last year, puts specific definitions on its website and packaging to clarify for consumers how it raises hens.

People often believe “that cage free is outside running around on the grass and having a happy life,” says Rob Newell, chief marketing officer for the Happy Egg Co., which is owned by Noble. The company’s birds have easy access to outdoor pasture year round, says Mr. Newell. Cage-free birds are often raised in enclosed buildings and some “free-range” birds spend most of their time inside with a small door to the outside or screened porches, he says.

“People are still buying and still interested in the classic egg,” says Kevin Burkum, senior vice president of marketing for the American Egg Board, which represent egg producers. The AEB is trying to get people to eat more eggs for breakfast and as a portable snack. “We don’t know as a country how to hard boil an egg,” a form that let’s people eat them in the car, he says. (To hard boil an egg, Mr. Burkum says, cover it with cold water in a pan, bring to a boil, then turn off the burner and let it sit covered for 12 minutes.)

Eggland’s Best requires the companies that produce its eggs to use its well-researched hen-feed recipe and it conducts tests to ensure compliance. To boost omega-3 fatty acids, for example, the feed has canola oil, flax seed and kelp. “Chia is really my favorite” way to get omega 3s into eggs, says Mr. Slaugh, the company’s lab director. “It’s just really, really expensive.”

Over the years the company tweaked the feed recipe to boost vitamins D and B-12 and added marigold and alfalfa meal to increase lutein-a nutrient found in green leafy vegetables that can give yolks a bright yellow, not orange color. A small group of consumers prefers the farm-fresh look an orange yolk conveys and it is favored by many Hispanic shoppers, but “we want nationwide consistency,” on color, says Mr. Slaugh. The company is careful not to add too much flax seed to feed, which can lead to “fishy” tasting yolks, he says.

Several years ago the company experimented with adding vanilla, garlic, cayenne pepper and other seasoning to feed, hoping to make flavored eggs for baking or cooking certain recipes. The company succeeded, but decided they wouldn’t be widely appealing, says Mr. Slaugh.

A high-calcium egg is the “holy grail,” but has proved tricky, says Mr. Lanktree. After more than a decade of testing different feed recipes, it hasn’t increased calcium enough to tout it on packages under FDA labeling standards, says Mr. Slaugh. They have boosted calcium slightly, about 10%, by adding more vitamin D and other ingredients to feed, but when chickens eat calcium, it ends up mostly in their shells, he says. And when shells get too hard, consumers complain eggs are hard to crack. “Nature is working against our success.”