Imports of shell eggs have increased by nearly 70 per cent over the first five months of the year, according to the latest statistics released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).From January to May this year the United Kingdom imported 2.2 million cases of shell eggs - an increase of 69 per cent over the same period last year. Shell egg imports have increased each and every month - up by 43 per cent year-on-year in January, 63 per cent in February, a smaller 26 per cent in March before a huge 136 per cent increase in April. Imports in May were up 79 per cent on May 2011.Leigh Riley, who is responsible for compiling the Defra statistics, thinks the increase in imports may be filling a shortage of egg that has arisen in the UK market since the introduction of the European Union's conventional cage ban in January. Andrew Joret, chairman of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), also believes that the increase in imports may have been driven by the egg shortage in the UK, although he said he was surprised, to some extent, at the size of the increase in April."We know that the UK is just over 80 per cent self-sufficient in eggs, so we do always rely on some imports to some extent, but given that the shortage of eggs in the UK has been driven largely by what has been happening on the continent it is surprising to see such a large increase in imports," he said. "We will obviously keep a watch on what is happening. There should be more colony production coming on stream this year and that could replace some of these imports."Leigh Riley said the statistics for imports came from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) trade data. Figures were based on tax returns. He said that companies had to declare goods imported for the purposes of tax. One caution that Leigh did express was that the current import figures were still preliminary and it was always possible that they could be revised at a later date. Leigh said that what the statistics did not show was where the imported shell eggs had gone.It is this mystery that causes some people in the industry to view the figures with incredulity. Barry Jackson of Eggsell said, "I just can't understand where all that egg has gone." The Defra statistics show that the number of cases of eggs bought by UK processors in the second quarter of 2012, including imports, was down by 9.1 per cent on the same period last year at 1.2 million cases. Leigh Riley said that Defra did not currently publish the split of domestic and imported eggs bought by processors. He said the agreement of processors would be needed in order to do so. However, he said he did have some figures on the split from a one-off exercise at the beginning of this year. "The percentage of imports was surprisingly low. Certainly less than 50 per cent," said Leigh. "It is an intriguing question - where is the imported egg going? We could ask ourselves whether we had missed a big processor from our figures, but I don't think that is the case. We obtain statistics from 11 different processors. Another possible black hole is manufacturing."Barry Jackson said, "If the eggs didn't go into processing, where did they go? There is a great big gaping hole somewhere because we don't have a wholesale market that big." The Defra figures show that 635,000 cases of shell eggs were imported in April this year. "That's 160,000 cases a week, 22,500 cases a day," said Barry. "That is a huge amount of eggs. One transcontinental lorry load is just 900 cases. You can't hide that volume of eggs. Somebody must know where it is. Only certain operators could handle that volume of egg, so it should not be difficult to trace it."Barry said that operations existed in the UK that imported eggs legitimately and well. "But they do it 52 weeks a year. They may have got a bit busier earlier in the year but the quantities still don't add up."Barry also questioned why, if so much egg had been imported into the UK this year there had been no resulting surge in egg prices on the continent. "If that volume of egg had come here from the continent there would have been a pricing spike over there, but we didn't see that. So that begs the question, where did the eggs come from?"Andrew Joret was another one who said it was important to find out where the eggs were going. He said that the difficulty in interpreting the statistics was trying to understand the destination of the imported shell egg once it arrived in the UK. Defra's figures show that imports of egg product from January to May were up by just six per cent on the same period last year, but Andrew said that some of the imported shell egg would probably end up as egg product. Other shell eggs would end up in corner shops. "This will not be free range egg, this will be cage. The question is whether it is all legal."Andrew said that the UK consumed eggs from some 43 million hens and that remained fairly constant. If we produced more eggs at home, we imported fewer from abroad. He said that when the UK layer flock increased to 36 million birds at the beginning of 2011 imports were noticeably lower. UK bird numbers had fallen to about 32 million, although the number was probably about to increase again. That would probably result in imports falling back.The Defra statistics show that throughput of UK produced eggs through the country's packing stations has been falling over recent months. The figure for the second quarter of 2012 was 6.3 million cases - down by 8.2 per cent on the same period last year. The first quarter figure was down by 5.1 per cent year-on-year, the fourth quarter of 2011 showed a 5.9 per cent fall and the third quarter of 2011 a 4.2 per cent fall. Up to that point packing station throughput had been increasing. Eggs have been in short supply overall, although there are distinct differences in the state of the market for cage and free range. Whilst there is currently a shortfall in cage production, there are still too many free range eggs on the market. Andrew Joret says that the trend for free range is worrying."In terms of free range we need to be self-sufficient and nothing more," said Andrew. "Free range is a continuing concern for us because demand is shrinking - and that is something that none of us expected to happen. The latest stats are not good news. Demand is slipping back. We need to produce just enough free range and nothing more."The second quarter statistics released by Defra show that whilst UK egg throughput fell by eight per cent year-on-year, free range throughput experienced the smallest fall of all production categories. Organic was down 32 per cent year-on-year, barn was down 21 per cent, cage fell by 7.4 per cent and free range by six per cent. The second quarter statistics showed that cage eggs accounted for 48 per cent of throughput, free range 45 per cent and organic and barn together accounted for just six per cent.The latest Defra statistics indicated a significant increase in prices paid to producers between the second quarter of 2011 and the second quarter this year. The average packer to producer price for all eggs packed during quarter two 2012 was 88.5 pence per dozen, compared with 69.1 pence per dozen in the same period last year - an increase of 28.1 per cent. The price paid for free range eggs increased by 21 per cent, from 82.2 pence in the second quarter of last year to 99.7 pence in the second quarter of 2012. Cage egg prices increased from 52.2 pence last year to 74.4 per cent this year - an increase of 42 per cent.