When did buying eggs at the grocery store become so complicated?
There are white ones. And brown ones. Medium, large or extra large. Organic. Omega-3. And now the pricing scale comes with animal welfare guilt, too.
Beginning next month, Publix Super Markets will sell pasture-raised eggs for the first time. The Fresh Market made a pledge this month to sell only cage-free eggs by 2020. Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands, which operates chain restaurants like Bonefish Grill, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Outback Steakhouse, follows McDonald's, Chick-fil-A and other brands in shifting to use only cage-free eggs by 2025.
So what does this all mean, anyway?
It means eggs just aren't eggs anymore, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food research firm. He says we can thank the millennials for that.
Similar to what we've seen happen in the produce and meat departments, the demand for higher-quality, healthy food has raised awareness about the treatment of animals, farmers and crops.
"The issue is more around the social corporate responsibility and the sensitivity of the millennial generation," Tristano said. "Although the changes we have seen in restaurants and supermarkets are good for the welfare of chickens, the supply chain will have to adapt and the price of eggs will likely increase and stabilize over the next few years."
What that means for consumers is that we now have more choices that come at different price points.
But picking the right kind of egg can be overwhelming and confusing, admits Betsy Babcock, founder and CEO of Handsome Brook Farm, the company that will supply all 1,100-plus Publix Super Markets in six states with pasture-raised eggs beginning in April.
"Back in the day, most people had their own chickens in their back yard. But as we became a more urbanized country, commercialized farms developed to supply the needs of urban consumers," Babcock said. "People were very comfortable with that because it was a way to get very inexpensive eggs. But over the last 10 years or so, there's been this tremendous momentum from a new generation of consumers that prioritize the quality of animal welfare over price."
That's what led her to create a successful network of 75 family-owned farms, starting with her own in upstate New York, where chickens roam freely through pastures and aren't confined to cages or aviaries with concrete floors, which happens more often at commercial egg farms. That's what consumers are paying extra for — the better treatment of the chickens that lay the eggs we buy.
"Pasture-raised chickens get to forage, eat grass and bugs, which is so important to the chicken's health and welfare," Babcock said. "And the quality of the egg is exceptional."
There is some science to this. A 2010 study by researchers at Penn State University's College of Agricultural Sciences said "moving pastured hens" that eat mixed grasses and can forage have a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E.
But Nan Jensen, a registered dietitian with Pinellas County Cooperative Extension, said there's not a big enough difference in the quality of egg type, be it free-range eggs or pasture-raised ones, to justify the added cost.
"Is there an additional health benefit? Probably not," Jensen said. "You could very easily get more omega-3 fatty acids from other sources, like salmon, instead of paying more for a tad of a difference in an omega-3-enhanced egg. I think people buy these eggs because it makes them feel that they're making better choices, which is great, but a very personal decision."
Pasture-raised eggs also aren't regulated the same way "farm fresh" eggs are, which is the name given to the standard egg that comes from a traditional commercial farm and is sold in grocery stores, Jensen said.
"Because it's not regulated by the government, there's no way to tell where they come from, or what they eat," she said.
But that hasn't stopped the trend from gaining steam. California voters passed legislation in 2008 and 2010 that made commercial egg farms provide cage-free accommodations for egg-laying hens. But it still has a long way to go. As of 2015, organic and cage-free egg production accounted for just 8.7 percent of all egg production in the United States.
"With regards to grocery stores, I would expect to see more farm-raised marketing, higher prices, more organic and brown eggs that will allow consumers to feel better about what they cook and consume at home," Tristano said. "But it will take several years to get there, so supply continues to be an issue."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] Follow @SunBizGriffin.