Can Japan Crack Its Egg Problems?
Good or bad? Eggs are key to our diets! But how we overcome their challenges?
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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Today we embark on a new series about an alternative to one of the world’s most consumed foods: the chicken egg.
Chicken egg alternatives are one of the fastest-growing categories of alternative protein. But how much potential do they have here in Asia, a region accounting for over half the world’s egg production?
In this article, we lay down the context for this series by exploring the main challenges facing chicken egg production and consumption. We’ll conclude by reviewing how the challenges translate in Japan.
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Eggs: a fragile pillar of our food system
If you had to personify the egg, Jekyll and Hyde would be a fitting character. No other food product is as divisive. It’s lauded as a protein-rich, affordable superhero. At the same time, it’s derided as the super-villain poisoning us all with lethal doses of cholesterol.
However you split it, eggs are one of the most consumed foods on the planet. A global average shows we each consume 161 eggs per year. But high-consuming countries like Mexico, China and Japan consume well over 300 eggs per person, per year.
In 2021 the global population ate an estimated 46 billion kilograms of eggs. For perspective, that’s the same weight as 140 Empire State buildings. In lay terms: a lot of eggs.
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There are plenty of reasons to love eggs. Eggs are affordable, easy to produce, and high in protein and other nutrients. They are also an important functional ingredient thanks to their binding properties.
But, eggs are also not all they’re cracked up to be. From health concerns to unethical production practices, there are compelling reasons to reduce egg consumption around the world. Let’s review them below!
Why should we consider cutting down our egg intake?
Animal welfare has long been a major reason for reducing or quitting egg consumption.
Some of the practices used in egg farming are notoriously cruel. Battery farming, where chickens are crammed into packed cages, has been heavily scrutinized. In such conditions, chickens have approximately 500 square centimetres of space. This is less than enough to stretch their wings or perform other natural behaviours such as nesting and perching. In human terms, think of living your life in an overcrowded elevator.
Except for bans on battery farming in the EU in 2012, most of the world still keeps chickens in battery cages for egg production. For example, in 2020, 74% of the national laying flock of North America lived in cages.
It’s worth noting that countries and businesses around the world are actively taking steps to transition away from battery farming. Over 400 businesses in the U.S. have committed to only using cage-free eggs by 2026. Australia is taking steps to completely transition away from battery farming by 2036. Companies and organizations in Asia are also working to make the region’s egg supply more ethical.
Some lesser-known practices than battery farming are equally harsh. Male chicks are often culled because they are superfluous to the egg production process for example. This results in the death of 600 million male chicks each year which cannot be used for meat.
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“Forced moulting” is another ethically-questionable technique used in parts of the egg industry, especially in Asia. As winter approaches, birds' natural egg production decreases and they lose feathers. “Forced moulting” involves depriving birds of light and nutrition for days to force their moulting cycle. The process increases egg production but causes physical and mental stress to hens, sometimes resulting in death.
Eggs, compared to other animal foods, have a low carbon footprint. 2.2KG of Co2 is emitted per dozen eggs according to recent research, similar to dairy production and considerably lower than beef, pork and lamb footprints. Yet poultry is the fastest-growing livestock sector, so it’s essential to implement sustainable practices now for sustainable growth.
Studies into the exact carbon footprint of industrial egg production pinpoint feed as the biggest GHG contributor. Replacing imported soya-based feed with locally produced feed can help reduce eggs' carbon footprint. Some UK supermarkets are already producing carbon-neutral eggs by feeding their chickens with feed made from insects that have been fed on food waste from stores.
What’s the crack with eggs and health? Are they healthy? Are they unhealthy?
The conventional debate about chicken eggs focuses on high cholesterol content versus high protein and vitamin content.
Some studies suggest that eggs increase the risk of heart disease because they are high in cholesterol. A recent study found that for every additional 300mg of cholesterol a person consumed, regardless of the food it came from, they had a 17% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and 18% increased risk of all-cause mortality.
However, no studies have conclusively proved a link between egg consumption and heart disease. Many studies have shown the opposite, that egg consumption may be beneficial for heart health. What’s more, the potential benefits of eggs, such as high amounts of vitamin D and choline, a compound which may protect us against Alzheimer's, may outweigh the risks.
What is for sure is that eggs are a major allergen for children. An estimated 2% of all kids have an egg allergy. Egg allergies affect quality of life, and in 28% of cases can cause severe reactions.
Egg allergies are a serious worry for kids and their parents. From baked goods to restaurant dishes, eggs are commonly used functional ingredients. A simple family trip to a restaurant can become fraught with anxiety and stress from ensuring that menu items are egg free.
Animal born diseases
Cases of Avian Flu (“Bird-flu”) are increasing globally and pose a major challenge for the poultry industry. Infected chicken flocks are generally culled en masse; often inhumanely.
Antibiotics use in poultry farming has been linked to Antimicrobial resistance. Efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics have, however, been linked to an increase in the spread of infectious diseases. Antibiotics are used for several reasons such as egg production enhancers in laying hens for example.
With reports that COVID-19 originated in livestock before being transferred to humans, consumers are more sensitive to animal-born diseases. Reports of Avian flu and antibiotic resistance in poultry are likely to affect purchase rates and even drive consumers to seek alternatives.
Solutions for making eggs more sustainable
With a flock of problems facing them, extraordinary solutions are being hatched to
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