What's happened to white eggs?

Wondering how long it's been since you have eaten a white egg?

Little wonder if you can't remember when you last saw one - they are almost impossible to find in supermarkets.

The last commercial white eggs slipped off our shelves in the mid-2000s due to a lack of demand. We asked for brown eggs, presuming them to be healthier, and naturally produced. We were wrong.

"People believe brown eggs are less processed and more natural. Like brown sugar, brown bread and brown paper bags," Mainland Eggs head of sales and marketing Hamish Sutherland said. "It's not scientific."

But it didn't stop the industry switching its entire breeder supply from white hens to brown shavers and hy-lines.

Sunday Star-Times went on the hunt for white eggs after a question from a reader, who wanted to decorate some for Easter.

Church of the Saviour children's ministry co-ordinator Claire Wyeth in Auckland, is always looking for white eggs at the supermarket.

Brown eggs don't work nearly as well for blowing (emptying the contents to leave a whole shell) and dyeing for Easter decorations.

"There are crafters frustrated everywhere. I try to get white eggs each time so the kids can draw smiley faces on them and things. I've been trying for a couple of years."

She eventually gained a dozen from an associate's farm. And she didn't mind the slight green tinge from the chickens eating too much grass.

We were once a white egg-only country but, like Australians and Europeans, we now have a preference for brown eggs. Japanese and Americans, however, would turn up their noses at brown eggs.

The white egg market was historically more efficient, but the genetics for brown layers have improved through breeding in New Zealand, Bromley Park Hatcheries general manager Brent Williams said.

"Internally there's no difference in the eggs. But you eat with your eyes as well as your mouth."

Brown eggs gained popularity with the rise of smaller scale operators following the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s.

Free range Northland producer Rebecca Borger has only ever produced brown eggs in her 10 years at Te Rata Family Farm in Paparoa.

"The eggs get their colour from the chicken's legs and comb, which can lighten over time. The colour of the yolk is also more yellow and rich when the chickens are free range and eating grubs."

Carotene is added to feed to make yolks yellow in caged eggs.

Brown eggs are no better for being brown, Sutherland said.

"There are some benefits to white eggs - they peel better, the egg white holds together and they poach better."

There are no plans to reintroduce white eggs to the wider New Zealand market and the only white eggs you will find nowadays are likely to be at a farmers' market, a rogue free range egg at a supermarket, or in your backyard.

The choice by marketers and producers to stick with one colour also helps keep the price steady. At an average price of $3.30 for a dozen, standard eggs are only a little more expensive than 10 years ago.

But farmers say that steady price is starting to hurt. Frenz producer Astrid Van Velthuizen in Pukekawa, South Auckland, is feeling the pinch.

"The feed price has gone up about 30 to 50 per cent, it costs us $2000 a week to feed 4000 hens a feed pellet of corn and supplements."

But he will not switch to white eggs. "I've been in the industry in New Zealand for 20 years, we provide a premium market so we're very conscious about appearance."

On average, each of us eats around 220 eggs a year.

Sunday Star Times