Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Eggonomics: An Inside Look at the Pecking Order of the Egg Industry

It seems simple enough; going to the grocery store to buy the staples is a weekly tradition for many American households. Bread, eggs and milk: these are almost always on my grocery list, and theoretically, because I buy these products so often, I should know exactly what to buy before I even walk through the door of that supermarket. I have the bread and the milk figured out; I know exactly what I need, and why I prefer certain brands over others. But those eggs sure can be confusing: white vs. brown, organic vs. non-organic, cage-free and free-range... and the list goes on

Something so simple in theory has turned into something that requires a master's degree in food science and agricultural methodology to understand. In order to better understand which eggs I should really be buying, I looked up the folks at Henningsen Foods, a multinational corporation specializing in egg products. Dave Slaughter, Director of Technical Services for Henningsen Foods, is the company's expert on all things egg related, and he was happy to answer my questions.

Consumers are trained to think that darker foods are superior to lighter foods. Brown rice is healthier than white rice, sweet potatoes are better than white potatoes, and wheat bread is better than white bread. But what about an egg? According to Slaughter, “there is no difference nutritionally between white and brown eggs. The difference in color of the egg is merely genetic variation of the breed of bird.” Certainly brown eggs tend to be more expensive than their white counterparts; but there is no need to buy the more expensive brown eggs.

But the choice between white and brown eggs is not the only choice consumers have to make. The market for organic foods and beverages has exploded in recent years, and according to the Organic Trade Association's 2007 Manufacturer Survey, organic sales are projected to grow 17% in 2009 in the United States. The egg industry has taken note of this, and organic and conventional eggs are now readily available at most supermarkets. But exactly how organic and conventional eggs differ is a distinction the average consumer should know before making a decision to pay for an organic product. According to Slaughter, “The National Organic Program requires that the Henhouse facility and land be set aside from chemical pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer application for 3-5 years prior [to] being used for organic egg production.” This is in contrast to a conventional egg, which is produced by hens that are, according to Slaughter, “generally fed GMO [Genetically Modified Organism] corn, such as “round-up ready” Monsanto varieties as well as pest resistant BT [Bacillus thuringiensis, a safe a biodegradable biopesticide] corn. These varieties have been approved by FDA and deemed safe for consumption in the human food chain. Good science knows that proteins enter the body and through acid digestion are “chewed up” to very small components such as amino acids that can enter the blood stream thorough the stomach and intestine wall. The body doesn’t recognize GMO or non-GMO, and that includes both the chicken and the human. The feeds fed [to] conventional birds may also be made from crops conventionally treated with pesticides and herbicides as allowed by law and [the] FDA has set action levels in order to maintain proper levels of these compounds. Conventional birds are caged in light and temperature controlled houses.” The decision to buy organic is obviously a very personal one, but as Slaughter explains here, this decision shouldn't be made based on any perceived nutritional benefit from the organic product or any unsafe chemical levels in the conventional product.

With discussion of caging restrictions and requirements, we enter yet the territory of yet another confusing choice for consumers: to buy cage free or to not buy cage free.

The words “cage free” conjures images of hens happily roaming through open fields under a blue sky. However, in most cage free operations, this couldn't be farther from the truth. According to www.EggIndustry.com, “the label "cage free" does not mean there are any standards or auditing mechanisms behind it. As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as "cage free" are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in some of their natural behaviors such as walking and nesting. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Forced molting through starvation is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.” And yet the egg industry has profited from consumers' misconceptions about these living situations; cage free eggs are often two or three times more expensive than traditional caged eggs.

To make this price increase even more insulting, there are no added health benefits to these cage-free eggs. In fact, there are extra health risks. Traditional caged hens are placed on top of a large underground pit to collect their droppings. However, in most cage free facilities, hens simply defecate on the premises and then are constantly exposed to their own feces as they roam about in them. Additionally, hens have a tendency to engage in cannibalism when left in cage free environments, leaving birds injured or dead if their beaks are not trimmed at regular intervals. The University of Notre Dame, when conducting an investigation into whether or not they should switch from conventional eggs to cage free varieties, visited cage free operations and encountered both of these problems. Jocie Antonelli, a registered dietician and Notre Dame's manager of food nutrition and safety, was unimpressed with the cage free facilities: “Unlike the cage system where the manure drops into an underground pit, these hens were walking around in what is called a ‘deep litter system’ which allowed them to be in constant contact with their feces. And we saw firsthand what the phrase ‘pecking order’ means. It means that some of the hens actually peck or attack other hens. This is why their beaks are trimmed (not cut off) just after birth, both in conventional cage and cage free production systems. There was no natural light, just artificial; the air quality seemed worse to us, because the hens are walking around and kick up a lot of dust. In fact, many of the workers were wearing masks. The ammonia smell also seemed stronger to us than in the conventional cage production, perhaps because of the deep litter system.” Needless to say, Notre Dame did not choose to switch to cage free eggs. In reality, their environment is no better than that of conventional hens; if anything, it is worse.

The same problems exist for free-range eggs. According to www.EggIndustry.com, “there are no standards in "free range" egg production. Typically, free range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have outdoor access. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Forced molting through starvation is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.” The complete lack of regulation for free-range eggs is shocking, and as a consumer, I'm left to wonder exactly why the free range eggs typically cost two to three times more than the conventional egg products. Forced molting, a practice common in hen houses, mimics the hen's natural molt. In nature, this process usually occurs at the beginning of winter, when the hen will stop producing eggs and focus instead on producing new feathers. For hen houses, a forced molting will enable the hen to produce eggs for another year, and increase profit margins. Again, this is a standard practice for many egg operations. But the fact that so many consumers are buying free-range eggs for the perceived ethical benefits to the hen when in fact there is a surprising lack of regulation speaks volumes about the complexity of today's egg market.

With the wholesome image that the cage-free and free-range producers project, it's no surprise that many consumers automatically assume these eggs are also organic products. In some cases, they may be. But Slaughter is skeptical: “Judging by the descriptions provided from the EggIndustry website, the eggs may or may not be organic. My guess is that most cage free and free-range shell eggs would not qualify under the National Organic Program for organic status.” So a consumer buying a product that is quite possibly two or three times more expensive than the conventional product is not necessarily buying a product that qualifies as organic.

After all of this new information, I clearly was at a loss. Like many consumers, I had been purchasing expensive eggs for some peace of mind that was only fabricated through an elaborate marketing scheme. Brown eggs really aren't any better than white eggs, and free-range and cage-free varieties actually have greater health risks to the consumer because of the lack of regulation that still exists in the industry. I finally asked Slaughter, the obvious expert on the matter, what he bought when he went to the grocery store. He was obviously amused by this question: “I purchase clean, conventional white shell eggs that are typically on sale. Shell eggs are very popular for most households and are generally used as a “loss leader” by the store to attract customers. This purchase gives me peace of mind because I have children that are always asking me for the money I saved on those eggs!”

The cheapest white shell eggs really offer the best price, the highest food safety ratings and the best nutritional value. I guess it really was that simple after all.

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