Egg prices are at a record low, and nobody’s buying cage-free

Remember the bird flu epidemic of 2015, when egg shortages got so bad that fast food companies were exploring (gasp) vegan egg substitutes? Well it’s been a long two years, and our egg windfall is leading to the cheapest egg prices in at least a decade, according to a recent USDA report. This news is a sad trombone for cage-free egg producers, who’ve been having a tough time selling their higher-priced wares.

“Right now, there is a much greater demand for commodity eggs at these low prices than there is for cage-free eggs.”

The CEO of Cal-Maine Foods—America’s largest egg producer—bemoaned the cage-free surplus at a conference in early June. According to Buzzfeed, CEO Dolph Baker said, “Right now, there is a much greater demand for commodity eggs at these low prices than there is for cage-free eggs.”

This is not a new complaint. As roughly 70% of the country’s major restaurants and grocers have pledged to go cage-free, egg suppliers have been very begrudgingly making the switch. Their concern has been that demand will not match supply, and they’re going to be left with a cage-free stockpile. The latest news from the USDA, pegging May’s average retail price for a conventional dozen at $1.41, is sure to further inflame those worries.

In essence, egg farmers are nervous that they’re making all the elaborate structural changes to abandon battery cages, only to have shoppers turn up their noses. “90% of consumers stand in front of the egg case, and they pick conventional caged eggs because they’re economical,” Chad Gregory, CEO of the egg industry’s lobbying group United Egg Producers, told BuzzFeed News.

To further toss water on the cage-free parade, most consumers aren’t totally clear on what the concept really entails (see our in-depth look at this phenomenon from last year). If the average Joe is unwilling to shell out extra cash for what they think cage-free means (ie, idyllic, pastoral bliss), just imagine of how they’d feel if they had the whole picture.

For now, producers of conventional and cage-free eggs have been scaling back production; industry pros anticipate higher prices in the near future. Will that have any effect on the cage-free zeitgeist? Time will tell.

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Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.