IN THE NEWS: On FEB 4, 2018
One of Australia's biggest egg producers has invested tens of millions of dollars in a new free-range egg farm on the outskirts of Toowoomba in southern Queensland.
Sunny Queen spent a decade planning the new facility because of increased demand for free-range eggs.
"We realised after listening to our customers we needed to move more towards free-range," business development manager Kent Antonio said.
"Consumers are changing their attitudes towards the way the birds produce eggs."
Sunny Queen produces more than 70 million eggs a year in both caged, barn, organic and free-range systems around the country.
Demand for cage eggs has slumped in the last decade from 70 per cent of sales to 55 per cent, with free-range now taking 40 per cent of the market in Australia.
The industry standard for free-range eggs is 10,000 birds per hectare.
Mr Antonio said many customers were uneasy with such a high stocking rate so Sunny Queen decided on the much lower number of 1,500 birds per hectare for its new farm.
"That's six times [less than] the national standard and we believe, no matter what, if that standard changes, 1,500 will still be accepted," he said.
He said the number had to be one which would be acceptable to consumers for decades.
"We need to know the investments we make are going to be here in 30 years time because it is a very intense investment," Mr Antonio said.
Sunny Queen's managing director, John O'Hara, predicts the free-range market will grow for a "little while longer" before plateauing.
"I know the animal lobby groups want everyone to change and I understand their arguments and all the reasons why, but a lot of people need affordable protein and they need to be catered for too," Mr O'Hara said.
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Sunny Queen has also invested $40 million in a new "meal solutions" factory at Ipswich near Brisbane.
It produces single serve omelettes, poached eggs, scrambled eggs and frittatas for catering, fast food and aged care customers.
One fast food company alone takes 4 million poached eggs a year.
Mr O'Hara said Sunny Queen wanted to do more with its "seconds" eggs which are cracked, dirty or misshapen than turn it into pulp and sell it to biscuit and cake manufacturers.
Pulp eggs are worth 30 per cent less than a carton egg, but the value increases once it is sent to the Ipswich factory for value adding.
"The egg industry in Australia has been a bit lagging in taking eggs to the next step and making them portable, convenient and doing a lot of the hard work for people," Mr O'Hara said.
"We believe there are things in the factory we've done no-one else has developed, we think we're doing things that no-one else is doing in the world."
The factory, which employs 110 people, is operating at 80 per cent capacity. But with egg production rising it won't be long before its at 100 per cent, and then stage two will be built.
The next market it wants to target is supermarkets with single serve meal options.
"We want give people a portable, convenient product in a container they'll be able to take to work, grab their coffee, pop it in a microwave and have their breakfast at work," Mr O'Hara said.
Mr O'Hara said the company was aiming for a quarter of its business to be in Asia by 2022.
"Protein is really where it's at and egg are one of the highest forms of protein and it's certainly one of the most affordable," Mr O'Hara said.