Lower egg prices bad for producers, worse for chickens

October 7th, 2013 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Which came first?

Which came first?

Over the summer the retail price of eggs has increased anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, which is a significant change for consumers but also for people who are pushing Abenomics and its focus on reigniting inflation, since eggs have for years been seemingly been impervious to price changes. At the beginning of May, it cost about the same to buy a package of 10 eggs as it cost to buy a package of ten eggs thirty years ago. As the prime buka no yutosei (best “student” among product prices), it’s one of those constants people took for granted.

However, the sudden increase was not entirely due to serendipity or natural market forces. In fact, the price hike was engineered in a bid to maintain market stability. In 2011 the agriculture ministry implemented a subsidy to control the price of eggs. Because a sudden drop in price can have an immediate harmful effect on egg producers’ bottom lines and potentially damage the industry as a whole, the ministry automatically provides funds when the wholesale price goes below ¥159 per kilogram. These funds are used to cull egg-laying chickens in order to reduce supply and put pressure on demand, thus pushing the price back up.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, in May the price dropped below the designated line and the subsidy kicked in. Producers receive ¥150-¥200 for every chicken they kill, and the ministry estimates that from mid-May until mid-July, when the subsidy was available, about 5 million birds were culled. Not all were thrown away. Many were processed and sold as meat, for which the producers can earn an additional ¥20-¥50 per bird, an aspect that makes the system even more popular among producers since it rationalizes the process of replacing chickens.

Usually, a hen becomes productive — meaning it starts laying eggs — 150 days after birth, and remains productive for about 500 days. The dropping off point for production can vary greatly from one bird to the next, so whenever the subsidy is in effect egg producers get rid of those older chickens that are borderline productive since it is monetarily advantageous to do so under the system. Egg production is a relatively easy farming method since it is all about volume. In the past ten years the average number of chickens kept by each producer has increased from about 33,000 to more than 50,000, thus indicating the loss of small-scale farmers and the dominance of corporate egg producers.

Of course, when it’s all about volume it’s also all about controlling inventory, which is bad for chickens. Besides the horrendous factory conditions that egg-laying hens have to endure, their fate is also subject to capricious market forces, not to mention natural ones.

This summer was one of the hottest on record, and a lot of chickens died from heat stroke, so even after the subsidy system was lifted in July, the number of producing hens continued to decrease, sending the price of eggs to its highest levels ever. Moreover, one condition for receiving subsidies is that the producer not replace culled chickens for at least 60 days. According to JA, its Zenno Tamago brand, often used as the index for egg prices, was up by as much as ¥55 per kg on Sept. 27 compared to the same date in 2012. (For reference one LL-size egg is 70-76 grams, and one kg now costs about ¥225.) But chickens grow fast, so the price is expected to drop to its normal level by December’s Christmas cake season.

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