On April 18th, the Center for Disease Control announced a voluntary recall of eggs on the East Coast that were potentially contaminated with salmonella bacteria. The recall included over 200 million eggs sold in 9 states under a variety of labels to grocery stores, Walmart, and restaurant distributors. The scope and nature of this recall got me thinking about the egg industry, commercial producers, and transparency.
Now you may have noticed a theme in our columns—at the Fallon Food Hub, we are all about educating folks on the differences between two competing models for food production, the industrial model vs. sustainable agriculture. Obviously, we are big fans of our Churchill County producers—farmers, ranchers, dairymen, and those who tend to flocks of laying hens. The differences between commercial egg production and farm fresh eggs are stark. So, we thought it would be worthwhile, especially amid a foodborne illness outbreak, to take some time to examine the egg industry.
One of the most challenging aspects of sourcing humanely raised eggs within the large scale, commercial egg industry is that the USDA does not require labels on egg cartons that inform the consumer about the living conditions of laying hens. All specifications like “cage-free” and “free range” are entirely voluntary. Additionally, the definitions of the labeling terms are extremely vague. The USDA stipulates that “Eggs packed in USDA grade marked consumer packages labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” These hen houses include automated feeders and waterers, do not allow access to the outdoors, and are not required to provide room for the chickens to comfortably move around. Eggs sold under the label free range “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.” Once again, the USDA does not make specifications about space per chicken, or the size of the outdoor area.
The commercial egg facility responsible for the salmonella outbreak, Rose Acre Farms, is the second largest egg producer in the United States. They house over 13 million hens that produce 12.3 million eggs every day. The federal investigation into Rose Acre Farms found that there were unsanitary conditions and a rodent problem in their laying houses. When chickens are packed together into tight spaces in great numbers, the potential for salmonella infection increases. Chickens that are carriers of salmonella do not show any signs of being contaminated—in these living conditions, one chicken can quickly infect a flock.
There are many advantages to consuming eggs that are produced in the sustainable agriculture system. Farm fresh eggs are laid by chickens with regular and often unlimited access to the outdoors, only secured in their coops overnight. These chickens are allowed to be chickens—scratching and foraging for their food. As a result, the eggs they lay are much tastier and nutritionally more valuable. Studies have shown that chickens with a varied diet and ample outside access yield eggs that are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, contain more vitamins, and have higher levels of beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids.
The difference in egg quality is not just limited to nutritional content—farm eggs frequently have a rich yellow yolk and a stiff white. Both the diet of the chicken and the age of the egg are major contributors to the culinary superiority of a farm egg. Over time, the white and yolk of an egg lose quality. The yolk absorbs water from the white. Moisture and carbon dioxide in the white evaporate through the pores, allowing more air to penetrate the shell, and the air cell becomes larger. If broken open, the egg’s contents would cover a wider area. The white would be thinner, losing some of its thickening and leavening powers. The yolk would be flatter, larger and more easily broken. Grocery store eggs can be displayed and sold for over 30 days, and there are not requirements for packages to be labeled with “best by” or “sell by” dates.
For delicious & nutritious farm fresh eggs that you can trust, support local Churchill County producers. At the Fallon Food Hub, we work with several certified chicken farms in the area to provide a regular supply of eggs that take only a few days to make it from the chicken to your plate. Once you try a farm fresh egg you will never go back!