The toy industry had its Tickle Me Elmo, the automakers the Prius and technology its iPhone. Now, the food world has its latest have-to-have-it product: the cage-free egg.
The eggs, from chickens raised in large, open barns instead of stacks of small wire cages, have become the latest addition to menus at universities, hotel chains like Omni and cafeterias at companies like Google. The Whole Foods supermarket chain sells nothing else, and even Burger King is getting in on the trend.
All that demand has meant a rush on cage-free eggs and headaches in corporate kitchens as big buyers learn there may not be enough to go around.
The Vermont ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s got plenty of attention last September when it became the first major food manufacturer to announce it would use only cage-free eggs that have been certified humane by an inspecting organization. But the company says it will need four years to complete the switch.
“It’s not easy to find all the eggs you’re looking for,” said Rob Michalak, a spokesman for Ben and Jerry’s. “The marketplace is one where the supply needs to increase with the demand.”
The eggs can cost an extra 60 cents a dozen on the wholesale market. But most chicken farmers are not ripping out cages and retrofitting their barns. They question whether the birds are really better off, saying that keeping thousands of hens in tight quarters on the floor of a building can lead to hunger, disease and cannibalism. They also say that converting requires time, money and faith that the spike in demand is not just a fad.
“There is a lot of talk about cage-free, but are people actually buying them?” said Gene Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers. “I think the consumer walking into the grocery store sees cage-free and they cost two or three times more, and they don’t buy them.”
It takes about six months to build a cage-free operation from the ground up, including raising the chicks, said John Brunnquell, who owns Egg Innovations, based in Port Washington, Wis. The cost for a well-designed facility is about $30 a bird. Building a conventional operation with the stacks of cages known as batteries costs about $8 a bird, he said.
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