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Yolk for the folk: Cracking open the market for eggs

It is a long way to go for Easter, but eggs are being sold in all sizes, colours, shapes and prices. So how can you grab the best bargain before you shell out for your shells?

If egg prices and options were a standalone indicator of inflation, then the percentile increase in prices of end product as well as inputs would make numbers look like they were on a trajectory matching that of a one-way rocket into outer space, or of a chicken trying to
jump over the moon.

It is not just the cost per dozen eggs landed at your doorstep, but the simply breathtaking way in which many of us have accepted that this most basic of foods has and will continue to see price increases ranging from 30% and more per annum.

In addition, there are, all of a sudden, a vast variety of poultry and other eggs available in the marketplace. In all colours, shapes and sizes, making a vast variety of claims from "near organic" to "extra strength" and "deeper colour yolks". Choose an adjective or more, and stick it with the name, put some sort of hologram or sticker on the eggshell, and voila! Here's another reason to notch up prices. Shops and other outlets seem to have a wide range of choices, prices in some cases going up to two and even three times the "basic" egg rates.

The "basic" egg rate in and around Delhi, which itself has gone up from around Rs30 a dozen to Rs40 a dozen now in the last few weeks, is driving the eventual price of these "new improved" eggs.

And they don't come in just round dozens anymore, or trays of 30, since packaging is now in fours, sixes, tens and even singles. Which makes things even more confusing.

This is a great change from the previous egg wholesaler repertoire, where choices and rates were and often still are restricted to 'desi' (country bird) eggs and 'leghorn' or any other generic layer bird eggs. The big ticket here is 'fresh', with canny retailers and others being able to spot from a distance anything that was laid more than 24 or 36 hours ago, typically the best period in which to consume eggs.

How they do it is still not clear, and in addition, they are able to judge with precision whether the egg was, while in transit, at ambient temperatures or met extremes.

Certainly, no egg retailer worth his albumin would like to sell anything like an egg under the title 'fresh' if it is already over 72 hours old, especially since the supply chain works without refrigeration till it reaches the end customer. Any 'basic' egg touching 60 hours or so is therefore sold at slightly discounted rates to street vendors, who usually manage to boil or cook and then sell for consumption the egg the same evening.

So, chances are that if you are sticking with the 'basic' egg, then what you get from the wholesaler is not more than 3 days old and what you get from the retailer may also be around the same - and that's not bad from the nutrition and health point of view.

But now you move to the 'premium' egg category. And here's where a chance encounter spurred this story - hanging around at Nizamuddin Station to receive a friend, I saw cases of eggs being unloaded from a 2nd Class Sleeper compartment, off a train coming from Pune.

Intrigued, I got talking to the carrier, and discovered all this:

1) The premium egg trade has now evolved an 'angadiya' service that typically carries a few hundred 'premium' eggs by train, anywhere in the country. Often, with help of pantry car employees, the number can also be higher.

2) These eggs are then "stickered" and then repacked, with fresh dates stamped on to the cartons, often in a smudged manner, thereby leaving room to also change the date.

3) Prices are set on arbitrary basis, often as a direct product of what the market can bear and the location of the end retailer.

4) Most interestingly, these eggs are often bigger, segregated during sorting of normal "basic" eggs, and then sold at a premium for size. The organic and extra-nutrition story is usually an add-on, like PR companies taking the credit for whatever was going to happen anyways!

5) Even in the case of a few of the known brand names of premium eggs, a closer look at the label as well as dates is essential. An egg that is 4 or 5 days old, without refrigeration, is simply not of much value to your body.

So, net result - are these premium eggs really worth the premium price?

The answer, as provided by the owner-cum-chef of a restaurant nearby who really values the quality of the eggs he uses, is simple - better to go to the wholesaler, and use fresh eggs. And the wholesaler always has oversize as well as double-yolk eggs, if you value them, at
a slight premium.

Of course, all of us cannot buy a minimum of 30 or 100 eggs at one go, to take advantage of the wholesale prices as well as quality and freshness. And that's where the retailer comes in.

Take the trouble to find out from the retailer how often he gets a delivery of fresh "basic" eggs, and if the answer is at least twice a day, if not more, then you are on safe ground as far as the eggs being fresh is concerned.

And now I am informed that "imported hen eggs", all the way from the Persian Gulf countries, are also available in stores. At an even higher price than the "premium Indian" eggs.

What next in this egg-xiting report?
 

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