Egg consumption is on the rise, and retailers tell SN they see demand growing for a variety of higher-priced specialty eggs that make any number of health claims.
Long viewed as unhealthy for their cholesterol, and stigmatized by salmonella, eggs fell into disfavor at the same time women began entering the work force, according to industry observers. The end of the weekday breakfast ritual also contributed to the decline, they said.
"Consumption is going back up," said Bob Trost, manager of grocery for a 40,000-square-foot Byerly's unit in Golden Valley, Minn., and a former dairy department manager. "[Consumers] are finding more and more that eggs are not that bad for you."
Indeed, it was 1992 when eggs began to make a comeback. That was the year industry watchers saw per capita consumption inch up for the first time in about 15 years, from 233.5 eggs in 1991 to 235.1 in 1992. It was a sign that the downward trend was reversing itself. Egg consumption continued to climb through most of the 1990s.
Helping to turn the tide were news reports that, for a change, did not vilify eggs. In its revised dietary guidelines, released last October, the American Heart Association upheld its recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol to no more than 300 mg a day -- one large whole egg contains 71% of the daily recommended amount. However, the Dallas-based AHA noted that the actual dietary cholesterol in an average egg is 213 mg, not 274 mg as was previously believed; therefore the association updated its recommendation, which today limits egg yolk consumption to three to four yolks per week, up from three yolks a week.
Part of the change has come from eggs themselves. West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee supermarkets recently rolled out Omega eggs, which contain about five times more Omega 3 fatty acids than other eggs. Research shows Omega 3s, normally found in salmon, promote good cholesterol over bad cholesterol and reduce the occurrence of blood clots.
A dozen large Omega eggs were selling at Hy-Vee recently for $1.05 a dozen, compared to less than 70 cents for a dozen regular eggs. The retailer started selling the specialty eggs in late February.
"I barely got them in and people started asking for them," said Sandy Huntwork, dairy manager at a Hy-Vee unit in Lincoln, Neb., who estimated Omega eggs contribute 5% to 10% of total egg sales.
While one egg industry official who was interviewed by SN said she does not foresee consumption levels ever reaching the peak levels recorded in 1945 -- 402 eggs per person -- she thinks the egg-eating trend will continue.
"I do see egg consumption increasing, but not to that  level," said Joanne Ivy, senior vice president at the American Egg Board, Park Ridge, Ill. "I don't think people will make big breakfasts during the week again. But we'll see people return to eggs because of health factors.
"Concern about cholesterol is way down now," Ivy said. "Eggs are not the bad food that people thought."
Supermarket retailers reported demand for regular eggs is steady, and, in some markets increasing. Demand for specialty products -- organic eggs, pasteurized eggs and eggs that claim to have less cholesterol -- is modest to strong, retailers told SN.
"There's huge demand for pasteurized eggs," Byerly's Trost said.
While egg industry officials point out the risk of contracting salmonella through eggs is remote, the desire for pasteurized eggs suggests lingering concern about their safety. Byerly's sells a dozen large pasteurized eggs for $1.75, compared to 89 cents for a dozen regular large eggs.
In his 24-year career with Byerly's, Trost has seen eggs gradually decline. When he started at Byerly's, the store devoted 48 linear feet of display area to eggs, he said. That compares today to 16 linear feet for eggs and egg substitute products. Ten years ago, when he managed the dairy department, Trost said eggs were the No. 2 selling product, behind milk. Now eggs are No. 3, behind milk and cheese, he said.
His store in suburban Minneapolis caters to well-heeled retirees -- "people who grew up eating eggs," Trost said. "The younger you are, the less time you have to make eggs in the morning."
Dairy department employees at a few Strack & Van Til supermarkets in northwest Indiana reported moderate demand for two well-known brands of specialty eggs: one claims to have lower cholesterol and more Vitamin E than regular eggs, the other brand claims the eggs come from hens raised on hormone-free diets in cage-free environments. Each product sells for $1.99 for a dozen large eggs.
The national brand that claims to have less cholesterol and more Vitamin E, as well as various brands of organic eggs, are strong sellers for a unit of Bashas' in Scottsdale, Ariz. The lower-cholesterol product was selling for $2.39 a dozen, while two brands of organic eggs were on sale for $1.89 and $2.59 a dozen.
"We sell a lot of higher-end eggs," said Joy Gordon, manager of the store's dairy department. "We're an older neighborhood. We have a lot of elderly [customers]. They're concerned about cholesterol."
The American Egg Board had no hard sales figures for specialty eggs, though Ivy said she believed they make up 3% to 5% of the market -- a tiny, yet growing, piece of the pie. "I would imagine 10 years ago, it was less than 1%," Ivy said.
"I think we will see an increase" in specialty egg products on the market, she said. "There's room for them."