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Cracking open the cause for skyrocketing egg prices

Once a month I brace myself for a local Costco run in Central Washington, where I either push/pull two carts simultaneously or recruit a kid to help me (if they can see over the shopping cart handlebar). I used to buy the five-dozen Kirkland egg pack, which would last my family of seven about two weeks.


What can I say? We eat a lot of eggs.

But last month the Costco egg aisle was strangely empty during my visit. I bought the boxed egg whites instead. I assumed there was some kind of temporary supply chain problem (not uncommon since Covid), or some other local store issue.

This week, to my dismay, the eggs were back, but my staple five-dozen Kirkland pack was nowhere to be found. I had to settle on two, 24-egg packs at almost $11 a pop. This was major sticker shock, considering the five-dozen pack cost me less than $15.


I noticed “cage-free” prominently stamped on the 24-pack and figured, “Well, Costco must have decided only weirdos like me want to buy five-dozen ‘caged’ eggs at a time. Consumer demand must be steering toward higher-quality, cage-free eggs. Guess I’ll have to pony up.”


But this week I stumbled across an alarming article explaining that consumer preferences have nothing to do with it. A Washington law passed in 2019 took effect for the first time in January, requiring all retailers to sell cage-free eggs. The empty egg aisle in Costco was a reorganization in response to this law. Per usual, Washington piggybacked on yet another fatuous Californian idea, which adopted these standards in 2015.


“Cage-free” in Washington means that egg producers must meet the 2017 edition of the United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry Guidelines, which require one square foot of space per hen. They may be packed in like sardines, but they are not in a cage. Some people mistakenly believe that “cage-free” means “healthier,” but there is no evidence that is the case. Instead, the husbandry guidelines focus on the humane treatment of birds.


The cage-free requirement means that egg producers must invest significantly to expand their facilities.

Egg producers report that cage-free systems require at least twice the capital of conventional facilities and require two to three times more labor than conventional facilities,” according to the Iowa Farm Bureau. “Cage-free systems also require higher amounts of feed, diseases can be more widespread and it also increases some food safety concerns.”


Free-range eggs have more production requirements than conventional or cage-free eggs, but the nutritional advantages are minor, compared to the cost increases. There is limited evidence that organic, “free-range” eggs have slightly more omega-3 levels compared to their conventional counterparts. However, the remaining nutritional profile for commercial organic, free-range eggs and conventional eggs (caged or otherwise) is nearly identical. The nutritional composition of the egg is based on the hen’s diet, which is similar for all housing types. The real difference between these eggs is the price, which is roughly $2 to $5 more per dozen for a cage-free product.


The price point means trouble for price-sensitive consumers and businesses that rely upon eggs. Although there is a small segment of the population willing to pay a premium for cage-free eggs, more than half of U.S. consumers are primarily motivated by price, according to a 2023 joint study conducted by researchers at Michigan State, Kansas State and Purdue universities. The study also found, “If prices remain unchanged and conventional eggs are removed from the market, the share of consumers choosing not to buy eggs will increase by 20 percentage points.”


This is now the Washington egg market, where the only option is the expensive, cage-free option. We should expect low-income families to reduce or eliminate their egg purchases. By prioritizing the humane treatment of animals above the nutritional needs of low-income Washingtonians, lawmakers are pushing citizens away from protein-rich eggs that promote brain and eye health toward cheaper, less nutritionally dense grain options (think sugary cereals and other breakfast junk).


Washington businesses are also suffering.


“In December we were paying like around $40 a case,” said Jose Salgado, owner of  Mariana’s Panaderia and Bakery. “And right after New Years it went up to $60.”


Bakeries, restaurants, and other low-margin businesses that rely upon eggs have no choice but to endure the higher costs and try to pass it on to consumers if they can.


Regrettably, mandatory cage-free eggs are here to stay. It’s one thing to give consumers options, it’s quite another to eliminate choice through legislation. While well-meaning, these kinds of policies price vulnerable consumers out of the market by replacing an efficient system with an inefficient one.


As the great economist Thomas Sowell wrote, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.”

You may need to break a few eggs to make an omelet but the yolk from bad policies can spoil the meal for everyone.

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