27 Jan 2023

Egg shortage: Free range egg farmers dealing with huge demand

2:08 pm on 27 January 2023
Generic eggs in cartons

Free range egg farmers are struggling to cope with the level of demand amidst an egg shortage. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Free range egg farmers are fielding constant calls and managing a flood of customers at farmers' markets as New Zealanders struggle to get their hands on eggs.

This comes as the Poultry Industry Association warns the country is still around 400,000 laying hens short and it is going to be months before the situation improves.

A free range egg business in Canterbury, Little Red Farm, said at the Ohoka Farmers Market it had been "absolute madness" recently, they had sold out of eggs only 20 minutes after the market started and last week customers had been lining up an hour before they opened.

Warkworth-based free range egg farmer Phillipa Stichbury-Cooper said it was a similar story at the Matakana Farmers Market, with some keen customers showing up at 6am to secure a dozen.

"At the moment it's full noise... because it's holiday season all the cafes want more than they normally have, all the public want more ... we've got people coming to the [farm] gate and buying eggs because nobody's got any eggs."

Brogan White from the Old Fashioned Egg Company in Canterbury said she was receiving constant phone calls from existing and prospective customers at the moment, but it was impossible to quickly boost production.

She also believed the amount of coverage the shortage had received was prompting some people to "panic buy", which was exacerbating the shortage.

White said unfortunately a constrained supply of eggs had hit at a time when costs on farm were soaring, and those increases had to be passed on to customers.

"We've had major increases [in the price] of our feed, chicks ... all of our running costs have actually gone through the roof and that's why a lot of these small free range farms are shutting down, because we just cannot make ends meet."

Supplies set to remain tight

As word of New Zealand's depleted egg stocks has spread, Michael Brooks from the Poultry Industry Association said he had been receiving interview requests from major international news outlets including the BBC, CNN and ABC.

Brooks said the country was still 400,000 laying hens short and egg supplies would remain tight for several months yet. Even though some farmers were buying more chicks, it took 18 weeks for them to start laying

"So that's May anyway... so we are seeing the chick numbers rising but it's going to take time."

It was a major concern Countdown and Foodstuffs were pushing ahead with plans to stop stocking colony cage eggs in their supermarkets by 2025 and 2027, Brooks said.

Colony cages housed 30 percent of the national flock and had been endorsed by the Ministry for Primary Industries code of welfare for layer hens, he said.

Brooks said supermarkets should allow consumers to vote with their wallets.

"Don't play moral arbiter, let customers make the choice," he said.

Brooks said he had requested a meeting with Foodstuffs and Countdown to discuss the poultry industry's concerns.

A Foodstuffs spokesperson said legislation introduced by the government to remove caged eggs by 2023 had temporarily decreased the overall supply of eggs.

The spokesperson said it would continue to work with the egg supply industry to smooth the transition and increase its offer in other types of eggs.

"It's a significant change for the egg supply industry and to help support the transition, and to make sure customers get a fair shake when they shop, a number of Foodstuffs stores have put temporary limits on how many eggs customers can buy."

Countdown spokesperson Nikhil Sawant told Morning Report the supermarket had been researching into colony caged eggs since 2012 - when the government committed to phasing out battery cages by 1 January, 2023.

Some of the issues that came up then were on animal welfare - including the limited space for the chicken in its life - but in addition to that consideration, a customer survey found most were in favour of free range and barn egg options, Sawant said.

He believed they had given suppliers enough time and guidance about the transition.

"We started in 2016 our egg producer programme, which basically meant that if a farmer had to go and build more barn sheds or more free range egg sheds, we gave them the commitment that if everything stacked up, we would take their [supply]."

Since then, they had seen a massive increase in demand for cage-free eggs, he said.

"In terms of choice for customers, we have an obligation to understand what our customer needs are ... and we have to be ahead of the curve. As I pointed out earlier, it would have been a lot more problematic if we had given a very short notice to the industry.

"We need to remember colony cages are still legal and we as a supermarket chain are still going to sell them [colony cage eggs] til end of 2025, so they're still available."

Sawant acknowledged there were some challenges in the transition, but said Covid had also had an impact, with most of the volume from suppliers going to supermarkets when other venues like hospitality were shut.

"Also suppliers that want to build more barns and shed - they just haven't been able to get the material into the country in a timely fashion."

But he was optimistic, saying suppliers assured him that in the next three months, there would be some reprieve.

"We've seen a 93 percent increase in cage free [egg] demand since 2016, that is phenomenal, and in terms of choice for customers, we have we have an obligation to understand what our customer needs are," he said.

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