More and more quick serves continue to make the switch to cage-free eggs—including Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, which announced earlier this week a phase-in plan starting this summer—but new research suggests Americans might not be as hot on the trend as expected.

According to data collected by Information Resources Inc. and released by United Egg Producers (UEP), cage-free eggs accounted for only 2 percent of eggs purchased in retail stores across the U.S. in 2009. Sales increased by only 1.25 percent over 2008.

Organic and free-range eggs, meanwhile, accounted for 1 percent of all eggs purchased in 2009, with sales decreasing by 1.67 percent from 2008.

Mitch Head, spokesman for the UEP, says the organization, which has worked to combat activists like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that wish to end the use of eggs from hens confined in battery cages, was surprised by the insignificant change in sales of cage-free eggs.

“When we saw these numbers, it kind of showed to us that, No. 1, it isn’t growing, it hasn’t changed really at all,” Head says.

“On the other hand, it maybe wasn’t totally surprising, because our farmers have been telling us a different story than what we were hearing from the activists. The farmers have been telling us, ‘Hey, our grocery stores are not asking for more, so we can’t figure out if this is really true or not.’”

Head calls the actions of the HSUS, which successfully recruited brands like Subway, Quiznos, and Burger King to the use of cage-free eggs, a “self-fulfilling trend.”

“That’s the thing about the supermarket more than anything else,” he says. “It is always the most clear, free, unbiased area … because people are voting with their wallet.”

But Paul Shapiro, senior director of the factory farming campaign at the HSUS, says supermarket numbers aren’t the only implication of cage-free eggs’ popularity. He says the UEP is “ignoring a huge portion of egg purchasing in the country” represented by the restaurant and noncommercial foodservice industries.

“If you look just in the quick-service sector, even five years ago, none of the quick serves were using cage-free eggs. Now, a multitude of them are,” Shapiro says. “There was a recent study done by a firm that found that 64 percent of universities in the U.S. are now using cage-free eggs in their cafeterias.”

Shapiro also says that actions in states like Michigan and California, which have passed ordinances that will ban battery cages for hens, prove Americans’ desire for a more humane treatment of chickens.

“The American Farm Bureau released a study in which they found that only one-third of Americans considered caging laying hens to be humane,” he says.

One reason cage-free eggs in the supermarket might not be growing in popularity is price; according to the UEP release, a dozen cage-free eggs cost $2.99 on average, while a dozen large, Grade A eggs from hens in battery cages is $1.10.

“As more and more retailers demand cage-free eggs, the price differential will shrink,” Shapiro says. “[But] it will never be the same; the reason why battery-cage confinement is used is because it’s cheaper to overcrowd animals.”

As for the quick-service industry, Head says brands should watch consumer trends like supermarket sales before diving into the use of cage-free eggs.

“Actions speak louder than words in many cases, and I think in this case, it is clear what the actions are that consumers are making in their decision on eggs,” he says.

By Sam Oches

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