NOBLE FOODS has made its “first tentative steps” into barn production as it considers ways to end its colony egg operation by 2025.

But creating a standard that will be accepted by shoppers will be far from easy, according to the firm’s consumer foods division MD Veli Moluluo.

He told the International Egg Commission’s spring conference that Noble Foods estimated 20%-25% of the market would still want a value egg in six years’ time.

But with all major retailers and many egg businesses, including Noble Foods, committed to moving from colony the new standard that would replace it was far from clear.

And the firm’s forecasts for overall market growth suggest that 25% of value egg sales will require about the number of birds in colony cages today.

Low cost egg

“We’ve got a huge challenge in the UK marketplace,” he said. The core
of consumers who just wanted low-cost eggs would continue to buy the
cheapest available, without any concerns about production systems.

But for the remaining three-quarters who opt for some form of free-range eggs, the barn standard may not be acceptable, he said.

“Fundamentally, when we start exploring production methods and sit down with consumers to give them insight into the various methods of production, barn and colony certainly don’t improve in consumers perceptions, they get significantly worse,” said Mr Moluluo.

There is therefore a risk that free-range egg becomes devalued, and value growth that the sector has enjoyed recently is eroded, he suggested.

European aviary system

To determine barn production’s viability, Noble Foods has commissioned the conversion of one of its colony units into a multilevel aviary system.

The units themselves are fitted with Vencomatic’s Veranda Aviary 2 nest system, a common formation for egg farms on Continental Europe, particularly in the Netherlands.

Mr Moluluo said the conversion, which will conclude this summer, would help Noble Foods understand cost of production and “truly understand the welfare outcome measures”.

Noble Foods is not the only packer moving into barn egg, and on 24 April British Lion members will meet to try and determine a harmonised standard for barn production across its membership.

Value growth

On the broader market, Mr Moluluo said there was much to be pleased with. Eggs are now a £1bn-plus category in Britain, and both volume and value had shown growth in the past few years.

“The important thing is how we are growing. More households are buying eggs more often – that’s not purely inflation.

“Positive growth in consumption is fantastic for our market, producers, packers and processors alike. But we’re still somewhere behind our continental European counterparts, and compared to what’s going on in Asia, America and Mexico in particular we have a lot of headroom,” he said.

Trading up

Shoppers continue to trade out of colony and barn categories, helping growth, he added. But there is further trading up from standard free range to speciality brands and organic.

“That is where the value growth is coming from, which is great news for our marketplace.

“It’s in good health, but how do we continue that journey? The answer
to continued growth lies in understanding consumers attitudes.”

Three years ago, Noble Foods surveyed 10,000 shoppers to find ways to consolidate this growth. From that research five areas of focus emerged to inform its marketing strategy.

These were: growth through encouraging shoppers to trade up; marketing eggs as a dish for children; selling the health benefits of eggs; highlighting their versatility as well as improving visibility on supermarket shelves.