Egg prices: Nobody here but us chickens

January 24th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

An egg-celent price, eh?

An egg-celent price, eh?

In Japanese, the term yutosei, or “honors student,” has a wide range of usage that can go beyond the animate. For instance, in the food retail business, eggs and milk are often referred to as “excellent pupils” in that they’ve maintained a stable price over time.

Eggs in particular. Between 1955 and around 1980, the price of 10 eggs (about a kilogram) fluctuated between ¥200 and ¥350. By the bubble years of the late 80s the price had stablized back to around ¥200 and has essentially stayed there ever since, which means that it costs about the same to buy an egg now as it did to buy one in the lean years after the war, when an egg almost qualified as a luxury food item.

Consequently, eggs have always held a certain iconic position in the Japanese diet, and lately have been used by supermarkets and other food retailers as loss leaders or medama shohin, meaning merchandise that are advertised at ridiculously low prices in order to draw customers into a store where they will presumably buy other products. The Price, Ito Yokado’s chain of discount supermarkets, last week was advertising packages of 10 eggs for only ¥99, and I saw a piece on TV Tokyo’s Business New Satellite that mentioned a supermarket that was selling them for ¥88.

As a raw agricultural product eggs are pretty much import-proof, so the only explanation for these rock-bottom prices is local competition, but according to government statistics per capita egg consumption has dropped since the bubble years, while production in general has increased. One can assume that much of the surplus is going into processed foods, but how can that explain a 50 percent drop in the retail price? Only a few years ago egg producers were saying they would have to increase prices since the cost of feed from the U.S. went up when the biofuel fad pushed up the price of corn.

Whereas once brown eggs were considered “healthier” (not necessarily true) and were thus more expensive, now there is no real difference in price between brown eggs and white eggs. And while there’s also been a lot more interest in organic eggs and those laid by so-called free range chickens, they’re mighty expensive. One organic egg can cost more than a whole package of conventionally produced eggs, a notion that should give anyone who eats eggs some pause. Somebody has to pay for this big drop in retail price, and it’s most likely the poor chickens who are laying those cheap eggs.

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