Big fox in the henhouse

Costco and cage-free eggs

March 8, 2007

Recently, the big-box grocery retailer Costco announced it would consider selling only cage-free eggs. How cool is that? It sounds great. But nothing Costco does is insignificant in the local marketplace.

Are there unintended and unfavorable consequences that might reasonably be predicted from such a change? Is it possible this seemingly good news could adversely affect both local communities and our already excessive food-consumption habits?

First, on local-community impact: The Oregonian recently reported that a Pacific Northwest burger chain, Burgerville, has joined forces with some local and regional suppliers to source all cage-free eggs for its restaurants.

Wonderful! A local/regional restaurant sourcing local/regional products for its customers. As the article points out, this is part of a continuing effort by Burgerville to focus on local and sustainable options; the chain was already sourcing free-range turkeys from California and local free-range beef from Oregon ranchers.

But Burgerville has had difficulty finding a reliably adequate supply of cage-free eggs. And Burgerville is small fry compared to Costco; the burger chain has 39 locations and cracks open some 600,000 eggs a year, while Costco has 500 locations and sells more than 1.2 billion eggs per year.

Although well-intended, it seems likely that Costco’s huge demand (2,000 times that of Burgerville) for cage-free eggs could put the squeeze on local availability for other stores and businesses. If it’s not well planned, this move could be disastrous in the short term for local markets and consumers who don’t shop at Costco.

Second, on food-consumption habits: San Francisco’s PBS radio affiliate KQED recently highlighted excess consumption on its Forum with Judith Levine, author of Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping.

The book, “a household experiment in buying only what you need,” points out the astonishing fact that American consumers use more than 23 percent of the world’s resources, yet constitute less than 5 percent of its population. Cheap prices and bulk purchases — both Costco trademarks — go hand-in-hand with this consumption addiction.

Being a good consumer is not necessarily the same as being a good citizen. Successful capitalism, the free market, and communities work only when we realize that having them means making both “good” choices and “good” sacrifices.

How is it that both Europe and Japan, as pointed out by Levine, consume less than half the food per capita than we Americans do, and still have food traditions and quality equal to or surpassing that of the United States?

Our lifespans and general health clearly don’t benefit from this excess of food consumption. Likewise, our local communities and businesses don’t seem to be benefiting from the Costco business model anymore.

By all means, we should encourage every grocer to find a more humane source of eggs. But this isn’t the way. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say (and really mean it), “You know what really makes this such a great neighborhood? It’s that just-over-the-horizon-of-the-parking-lot-big-cement-box-store called Costco.”

Let’s not only support the idea of humane, cage-free eggs, but let’s also support our communities and our own health by looking for options beyond more and cheaper products from Costco.

Listen to the full hour of the KQED Forum with Judith Levine, in which she makes a rational case for a coexistence between growth, capitalism, and “good” citizenship. It’s also available, via iTunes, as a free podcast.

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