Twenty-five years after Edwina Currie’s incendiary salmonella comments, sales of eggs are soaring. In these tough economic times, it is well positioned to finally become the cheap and healthy protein of choice.

It’s an anniversary the egg industry would rather forget. Twenty-five years ago, in December 1988, Edwina Currie (then health minister) took to the airwaves and told an ITN interviewer: “We do warn people that most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella.”

Egg sales collapsed by 60% overnight, the government was forced to set up a compensatory fund and farmers had to destroy millions of eggs.

Today, the picture couldn’t be more different. Sales of hen eggs in the UK have been growing every year since 2009. In the past 12 months alone, value sales have risen by 9% to £863.9m, with volumes up by 4% to 5.1 billion eggs - the equivalent of 215.7 million extra eggs sold [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 17 February 2013].

It’s a remarkable performance, given the size and maturity of the British egg market. So what’s behind this reversal of fortunes and how does the industry plan to ensure egg consumption continues to grow?

Since Currie made her comments, the egg industry has worked hard to stamp out the salmonella bacteria. In 1998, the British Lion scheme was launched, marking eggs with a stamp to reassure consumers the egg has been produced to a code of conduct - including a requirement for laying hens to be vaccinated against salmonella enteritidis. Membership fees from the scheme have also helped fund adverts and awareness campaigns.

But Currie’s announcement was by no means the only bad press the egg industry has had to struggle against, says author Joanna Blythman, who writes a column for The Grocer. “Any short-term drop in eggs sales caused by Edwina Currie was but a drop in the ocean compared with the chronic damage done over decades by erroneous public health advice.”

This changed in 2007, when the British Heart Foundation abandoned its advice to limit consumption to three eggs a week. “More than four decades ago, researchers wrongly believed that cholesterol in eggs could increase the risk of coronary heart disease, but this link has now been disproved by new and better research,” says Andrew Joret, chairman of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC).

The result? Consumers are now being encouraged to eat eggs to their hearts’ content. The NHS Choices website states “there is no recommended limit on how many eggs people should eat”, with the British Heart Foundation also echoing this advice.

“The easiest and cheapest way most Britons could improve their nutritional status would be to eat more eggs”

Joanna Blythman, food writer

Improved understanding of the health benefits of eggs has gone hand-in-hand with improvements to the health and welfare of laying hens - and increased public awareness of welfare options. Brands such as Noble Foods’ The Happy Egg Company - now worth £74m - and Chippindale Foods’ Free Rangers have helped transform free-range eggs from niche purchases to mainstream staples. Free-range eggs now account for 48.5% of volume and 63.9% of value sales.

In addition, egg farmers and suppliers have spent an estimated £400m converting battery cages to enriched cages and higher-welfare systems in line with new EU rules, in effect future-proofing the industry. With this investment in place, and the industry’s salmonella and cholesterol demons put to rest, egg suppliers are able to move on from simple fire-fighting to getting Brits to eat more eggs. But despite recent strong growth, the UK has some catching up to do with other European countries, says Chippindale MD Nick Chippindale: “This is especially evident in Spain, where egg consumption is over 20% higher than the UK.”

Promoting consumption

Promoting the health benefits of eggs is an important focus - “eggs are a high source of protein, and will keep you feeling fuller for longer,” says a spokeswoman for The Happy Egg Company - but so is encouraging consumers to use eggs in a wider variety of meals.

Research from Kantar suggests this is proving a challenge. The resurgence of home baking has helped boost egg sales, but otherwise Brits seem reluctant to use eggs in meals other than breakfast. Eggs have been included in 2.9 billion meals over the past year, but breakfast is the only major meal showing increased egg consumption. “Seventy-five million new [breakfasts] - up 6.8% year-on-year - are masking quite sharp and consistent declines of 3% at other mealtimes,” says Kantar Worldpanel analyst Tom Roberts.

But the industry should not be too disheartened. The fact that eggs are no longer demonised by the health lobby, coupled with the poor economic climate and low retail prices compared with other proteins, puts them in a prime position to play a more important role in main meals, believes Blythman. “Eggs now look like the low-cost, healthy alternative to other more expensive proteins in main meals,” she says. “The easiest and cheapest way most Britons could improve their nutritional status would be to eat more eggs.”

The resurgence of home baking has helped boost egg sales, but otherwise Brits seem reluctant to use eggs in meals other than breakfast.

According to Kantar, there is no evidence to date shoppers are switching from meat, poultry and fish to eggs, but the industry is hoping to change that. For example, the BEIC is highlighting eggs’ speed and versatility in its current marketing push, Main Meals in Minutes.

“One of the benefits that eggs enjoy over other proteins is the speed of preparation and the variety of usage,” says Joret. “The campaign shows consumers that they are literally able to make a meal in a minute, which is perfect for today’s time-pressured environment.”

The brands are also doing their bit to increase the use of eggs in main meals. Chippindale Foods believes the key to driving future egg sales lies in highlighting four key benefits: versatility, value, convenience and health.

In February it developed three characters to front its brand: Stef the Chef represents versatility, and teaches consumers about using eggs in meals and treats, Busy Lizzie talks about value for money and ease of use, and Jess the Spring Chicken shares nutritional information.

Such efforts build on the work the industry has done to successfully banish negative perceptions of eggs around health and welfare, and should stand it in good stead as it takes on other proteins. But it won’t be easy, Joret at the BEIC admits.

Unlike levy-funded protein sectors, such as beef and pork, the egg industry’s contributions towards marketing campaigns are voluntary and smaller, so marketing activity has to work much harder. “The biggest competition the egg industry faces is from the large spend of levy-funded proteins as well as branded convenience foods,” he says.

But with Edwina Currie now sold on the safety of the industry, and an egg aficionado to boot - “I like my boiled eggs and soldiers,” she tells us - the egg is definitely on the march.

Edwina: no regrets on eggs

No, Edwina Currie isn’t sorry for those salmonella comments from 25 years ago. Well actually, there is one small tweak she’d make.

In 1988, she told an ITN interviewer “we do warn people that most of the egg production in this country now is, sadly, affected with salmonella”. I should have said “much” instead of “most”, Currie tells The Grocer. But that’s about it. People had died from salmonella poisoning in 1988 and egg was widely consumed - it was even seen as a particularly good food with which to wean babies. Currie felt she needed to act. “We had a killer on our hands. The question I always put to people faced with that, is: what would you have done?”

Edwina Currie

‘Salmonellagate’ ultimately cut short Currie’s political career, forcing her resignation as junior health minister less than a month after that fateful ITN interview. But Currie says she isn’t bitter. At the time, she was faced with a choice of either speaking out about a food poisoning risk she perceived to be very grave indeed, or not speak out and risk not warning consumers in time. “I’d rather resign for the right reasons,” she says, defiantly.

The good news is, Currie recognises the industry is very different today, and some individuals and companies have done tremendous work to help eggs clean up their act. She singles out Baron Haskins, one-time chairman of Northern Foods (now owned by 2 Sisters Food Group), who, she says “was very good at cleaning up”.

And she hasn’t lost her appetite for eggs either, and keeps up-to-date with the latest egg industry news. In 2005, Currie endorsed the British Lion Eggs mark, and she is “delighted” by the current resurgence in home baking, providing the egg industry with new opportunities to grow sales. “It repays the hard work the industry’s put in. I just wish it had happened 25 years ago,” she says.

As for other food issues, Currie says she’s concerned about levels of campylobacter in the poultry industry but stops short of offering insight into its prevalence or the threat she thinks it poses. The poultry industry will hope she keeps it that way.

Watch our video interview with Edwina Currie: Salmonella scandal, 25 years on