Which came first, the chicken or the low-fat, low-cholesterol egg?
At Eggland's Best Inc., the company's healthier eggs start with hens fed a carefully controlled vegetarian diet, patented under the unwieldy title, "Egg Compatible With Cholesterol Reducing Diet and Method of Producing the Same."
Compared with regular eggs, Eggland's have 25 percent less saturated fat, 15 percent less cholesterol and several times more vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, which both are believed to reduce risk of heart disease and other disorders. Eggland's eggs, introduced in 1992, also contain more of the essential mineral iodine and lutein, an antioxidant thought to boost the immune system and help prevent cancer and the eye disorder macular degeneration.
"The good things we're better on and the bad things we're lower on. The perfect food just became more perfect," said Eggland's president and chief executive officer, Charlie Lanktree.
"This is a really special product and it has science to back it up," added Lanktree, whose enthusiasm for his wares rivals that of chicken magnate Frank Perdue.
The eggs' health benefits, along with heavy advertising, have helped to boost revenues at the tiny Cedar Knolls company by double digits for nine straight years. Retail revenues from Eggland's eggs — which sell at a premium of up to $1 per dozen over regular eggs — totaled about $200 million last year, with about $27 million going to the corporation and the rest to Eggland's Best farmers and grocery stores.
Reasons for Eggland's premium price include higher costs for feed and care of the hens and strict quality control. About 250,000 eggs are rejected each day for defects in shell quality and other factors, said Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance and head of the company research facility in Chester County, Pa., where scientists tinker with their vegetarian feed formula.
Plenty of consumers are willing to pay a premium for such "specialty eggs," which include nutritionally enhanced, organic and cage-free and free-range varieties.
"The specialty egg segment has grown dramatically in the last eight or nine years," said Alan Andrews, director of marketing at Pactiv Corp., the world's top supplier of egg cartons.
The number of specialty eggs sold jumped from 40 million dozen in 1999 to more than 90 million dozen last year, when roughly 5 percent of the volume of fresh egg sales and 11 percent of the approximately $3 billion in revenues went for specialty products, according to data from Pactiv and market researcher AC Nielsen.
While most specialty brands are sold locally, there are a few other regional or national brands, including Organic Valley, Chino Valley Ranchers and Egg Beaters, which are nutritionally enhanced egg whites, said Marcia Laux of the Iowa State University extension service.
U.S. egg consumption, which averaged 310 per person per year in 1970, declined over the next two decades over cholesterol concerns, then rebounded as research began to show eggs could be part of a heart-healthy diet and that an egg breakfast tends to limit the size of one's lunch. More recently, popular high-protein diets have boosted egg sales, and annual consumption is now about 256 eggs per person, according to the Egg Nutrition Center.
Eggland's claims numerous awards and citations as the top egg, from the National Health & Wellness Club Stamp of Approval to best fresh egg from Men's Health magazine. American Culinary ChefsBest, which rates food brands to help consumers choose products, has twice selected Eggland's as the country's best-tasting egg, according to research director Scott Thompson.
Even vegetarians like them — most vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products because they don't involve killing animals — and the American Vegetarian Association has certified Eggland's products as meeting its standards.
"We felt very comfortable certifying them because of the (humane) way they treat their hens," said Alan Reboul, director of marketing for the group.
Reboul, whose family has been buying Eggland's for a few years, said factors from the thickness of the egg white and the bright orange-yellow yolk to the hardness and thickness of the shell indicate the egg's high nutritional value and that the hen laying it is healthy.
Eggland's hen feed costs nearly 50 percent more than standard feed, according to Lanktree, and the company each year does tens of thousands of tests on the nutritional content of eggs, both from stores and the farms where the hens are raised. Farmers in 37 states who produce the eggs each hold franchises in the company and must adhere to its quality standards, which include using only the approved feed and providing multiple vaccinations against salmonella and regular veterinary checkups for the birds.
Standard feed for laying hens generally includes up to 8 percent animal fat, bone or other byproducts, according to agriculture scientists, along with higher-fat oils than Eggland's uses.
Eggland's feed contains healthy grains, low-fat canola oil and supplements including rice bran, alfalfa meal, kelp (a good source of iodine) and vitamin E.
"These hens eat a better diet than I do," joked Lanktree.