Back Forty Farm
Americans love eggs. And it is an exhausting love. We eat about 280 eggs a year (more than half an egg a day).
But recently, this love has cost us dearly: the price of eggs has increased by approx triple since the pandemic started and the egg shortage is hitting some parts of the country. This combination created a rare window of opportunity for replacements.
Consumers shocked by Shell
The price of most meals raise in the last year and while this caused many shocks and hardships to people across the country, the price of eggs struck a special chord. Eggs are often seen as a cheap, reliable source of protein – used when other things become expensive.
When the price of eggs goes up, people get emotional.
“This is a hot button for consumers,” said Bill Lapp, president Advanced Economic Solutions, food industry consultant. “It’s like driving down the highway and seeing that gas is $5.30.”
Of course, it’s not just emotional: The price of eggs has risen more than the price of almost everything else in the economy.
Reason? Much of this is due to the usual suspects: rising energy prices and rising feed, packaging and labor costs.
There’s another egg-related culprit: Devastating bird flu killed millions of chickens last year. The supply of eggs in the United States has decreased dramatically, and eggs have become generally difficult to obtain in some places.
“A lot of people are worried about not being able to get eggs,” says Ron Kern, who raises chickens in Nampa, Idaho.
He hears this from his customers: they go to the supermarket, there are no eggs. “These giant freezers are empty,” he says. This makes people worry that eggs will be hard to find.
This existential anxiety gave Kern an idea.
Stacey Vanek Smith
Kern runes Back Forty Farm In Nampa, Idaho, at 4:00 p.m.—it’s time to feed the chickens.
Kern enters the cage with a bucket of feed, and hundreds of chickens run from all sides: flopping down from their nests, coming in from outside.
Back Forty Farm
While the chickens eat their food, Ron Kern and his son Tony collect the eggs – a mix of green, blue, white and brown. They are very careful with them. These eggs are precious. Especially now.
A few years ago, these eggs were packaged in boxes and sold for about $3, but these days most of them go straight into the freeze dryer.
Freeze dried gold dust
Instead of selling fresh eggs, Kern freezes most of them.
The freeze-driers are about the size of a mini-fridge, and Kernin hums a row in a small building near the chicken coop.
The eggs Kern and his son have just collected will be cleaned, cracked, beaten and poured onto cookie sheets that go into freeze dryers.
Freeze driers turn eggs into a bright yellow powder. “It’s kind of like gold dust,” Kern said. “Looks like it’s gold dust, doesn’t it?”
Back Forty Farm
The proof is in the profits
Kern charges about $20 for her freeze-dried eggs. It’s a good thing, he tells me: eggs weigh almost nothing, keep for decades, lose no nutritional value, and come in a small mylar envelope that’s easy to store.
And, mostly, it gives customers peace of mind: Regardless of the supply chain disasters, deadly floods, price spikes, and shortages the economy throws at us, they’ll still have their favorite breakfast item.
The proof is in the profits. Big Kern started selling her eggs online, with orders coming in from all over the country.
“The demand was crazy,” he recalls. “Every single package we put on our online store sold out in 30 seconds. They just… fly off the shelves,” she adds, “I’m not even kidding, but go.”
(By the way, no one not even the authors of the government reports seem to be able to resist egg words – they are inevitable.)
Economics vs. egg economics
Basic economics tells us that when the price of something goes up, people will buy less of it: Demand falls.
Bill Lapp says that economics is a different story. Even when the price of eggs rises, people buy eggs. This is what is called “inelastic demand” in economics, meaning that it is something that people will buy no matter what.
Inelastic demand is usually for gasoline, electricity, etc. reserved for needs such as Eggs are an exception.
“Demand for eggs is highly inelastic,” says Lapp. “It’s a cheap source of protein, it’s convenient, and consumers love to crack open that shell and cook their eggs. Demand has changed slowly.”
Interested in mung bean omelette?
Demand may change slowly, but supply is another story. In the past few years, the illegal situation surrounding eggs has created a huge business opportunity for food companies.
All kinds of egg alternatives have appeared: not only dried eggs, but also plant-based egg products. These are usually soy or bean-based liquids that look like scrambled eggs when you cook them.
Last year, for the first time, egg alternatives were cheaper than real eggs. And not surprisingly, sales of egg substitutes increased by nearly 20%, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI.
Just Eggsmung bean-based baked egg product preparation, it was reported sales increased by about 17% during the past year.
Right now, if you can make something that looks like eggs, tastes like eggs, and is inexpensive, you can make a lot of money.
An unscientific taste test like eggs
But do egg substitute products really taste like eggs? Do they have a chance to be between the Americans and their favorite eggs? I rounded up some of my NPR colleagues to try out some egg alternatives and see if they could crack the code.
I don’t think eggs are going to lose their superstar status anytime soon (one of my co-workers mentioned that plant-based eggs taste like potatoes, while another described them as “super interesting… but not like eggs”).
Stacey Vanek Smith
That’s all, yellows
But fear not, egg lovers! Science is advancing rapidly: The first plant-based fried egg was just developed by a startup in Israel, and investors are pouring billions of dollars into food startups struggling with the elusive egg.
One thing’s for sure: If egg prices remain high and supply remains erratic, customers may start looking for eggs in earnest.
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