E is for Eggs

Welcome back to Agvocacy - Mommy Style.  It's time for the letter E.  While eggs are the obvious food of topic, this commodity has been through a lot in the past six months.   

Remember the salmonella outbreak from two large Iowa egg farms last August?  Contaminated feed was fed to the chickens which in turn caused the chickens to pass along the bacteria in the eggs they produced.  This strain of salmonella did not make the chickens sick, however, the bacteria made its way to the chickens' ovaries and ultimately contaminated the contents of the shell eggs.

Thousands were made sick.  Millions, maybe billions, any-ways, a lot of eggs were destroyed.  Thankfully, that mess has since been cleaned up.  However, its effects are lingering in the form of a new wide-reaching Food Safety bill signed into law by President Obama in January.  The bill awaits funding from the new Congress, and that funding could be in jeopardy as that decision is in the hands of a new majority.  We will all sit on the edge of our seats watching C-Span waiting to find out.  Or not.  But, you should be forewarned, the costs of implementing more extensive food safety plans are oftentimes passed on to you and I, consumers, in the form of higher egg prices.  Just tellin' it like it is, folks.

Now, let's get back to the basics.

The scope of the egg industry is big.  Billions big.  The kind of numbers that really make you think; or cause your brain to shut down entirely.  There are about 283 million laying hens in the US.  Those hens laid an average of 74.9 eggs per day per 100 layers in 2010.  More clearly: US layers produce about 250 eggs per year.  And per capita consumption of eggs in the US was 246.6 for 2010.  That means, if want to raise your own eggs, you need one laying hen for each member of your family. 

Eggs are produced in every state, however 50% of production is concentrated in just five states (in ranking order): Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, California.  Iowa alone has over 50 million layers.  That's why the scope of the egg recall was such big news.

Most commercial egg producers prefer the White Leghorn breed.  These chickens are great egg layers and efficient converters of feed.  And because they have white feathers, they produce white eggs.  Consumers in New England, however, prefer brown eggs.  These are produced by breeds such as the New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock.  Get it?  Are there nutritional differences in white shells and brown shells.  Nope.  Nill.  It's simply determined by the color of the hen, and ultimately a consumer preference.

And most commercial egg producers prefer a cage system.  Before you go believing the hype about the devastating life of chickens in cages, you should understand the history behind the cage system (loved these videos and so did my kiddos).  Less than 100 years ago, eggs came from backyard farms.  Families raised their own chickens and sold the rest at local markets.  As America became increasingly urban and suburban, egg production shifted to commercial sized operations.  Layers were kept outside and had a coop for laying.  Uncontrollable factors such as weather, predators, parasites, and the hen's tendency to establish a pecking order resulted in annual mortality rates of 40%.  Egg producers began to look for a better way.

Ohio State University first began experimenting with housing systems in the 1920's.  While this eliminated some uncontrollable factors such as weather and predators, producers still saw mortality rates as high as 18%.

Then in the 1940's, Texas A&M University introduced what we know today as the cage system.  Birds were kept in small groups in wire cages.  Modernizations such as machinery and automation allowed bird waste to fall away from the hens and the eggs, eggs to automatically roll on belts to a central processing location where the eggs were washed and processed mechanically, and feed to be equally distributed to all hens.  Egg production jumped from 150 eggs per year to 250 eggs per year because the birds were cleaner, healthier and had equal access to feed.  Mortality rates fell to 5%.

Of course, this system has its flaws.  Birds do not have access to the outdoors and do spend their lives in cages.  But when it's done right - and not the unfortunate mess we saw in Iowa - hens lead a healthy, productive life.

If it's cage-free eggs you prefer, then that's your capitalistic freedom to choose.  (Truth be told, I can't wait to move to the country and start my own little chicken farm.  Not because I necessarily believe chickens must be free from cages, but more because I like the nostalgic idea of chickens wandering around the yard.  And, I want my kids to see the eggs as an investment in their college education.)  These eggs, like other specialty eggs such as organic, vegetarian, nutrient enhanced or pasteurized, have higher production costs and these costs are reflected in the retail prices you will have to pay.  The Potted Goose household buys conventional eggs, but if you're a local farmer with a dozen or so extra farm-fresh eggs laying around, I could take them off your hands. 

Want to know the most surprising thing I learned about eggs?  Where the price of eggs is established.  Out here in these rural parts, it's often you hear on the radio things such as, "Beef prices rallied today."  Or, "wheat prices topped expectations today."  (Of course, when the market is good that's what they say.)  But, you never hear a thing about the price of eggs.  At least I don't.  And my agriculture extension agent husband just confirmed that from his comfy spot in the living room.

Wholesale egg prices are "discovered" here, at the Egg Clearinhouse, Inc.  Offers to buy and sell are monitored through ECI, much in the same way the Kansas City Board of Trade or the Chicago Mercantile Exchange handle other commodities. 

Current egg retail prices are running around $1.79/dozen.  Extension agent hubby braved the blizzard and picked up two dozen at our local grocery store for $0.99/dozen.  I've told you about his thriftiness.

Eggs have been in and out of food fashion.  Currently - they're trending in.  New research has shown that misconceptions linking cholesterol in eggs to heart disease are unfounded.  Even the American Heart Association is on board.  And, the benefits of egg consumption currently being touted include weight management - protein sources keep you fuller longer.  Eggs also contain 13 essential nutrients, one of which being choline.  A nutrient important for pregnancy as it contributes to fetal brain development and helps prevent birth defects.  (I ate dozens of eggs when I was pregnant with #3 - seemed to be the only thing that tasted good and stayed down.  And she is one smart cookie.  I'm not necessarily making any connections here, and I'm certainly not boasting, but the almost-two-year old has it going on.)

When we're simply talking protein value,  one egg equals one ounce of lean meat, fish or poultry.  Or, one egg offers 6.29 grams of protein in 70 calories.  A three ounce serving of lean ground beef offers 21.4 grams of protein in 173 calories.  How does that impact your food budget?  Given current retail prices, one egg costs $0.149; three ounces of lean ground beef runs $0.654.  Eggs are a great buy for your protein dollar.

Now, how did all of this translate to teaching the kids about where their food comes from?  Last summer, while visiting the dairy farm and while my camera batteries died, we also explored the small egg farm the dairymen are operating.  And we took home a dozen eggs.  Eggs come from chickens.  'Nuf said.

Yet on a snowy day in February, we drove the point home.  The kids colored a picture of a White Leghorn hen I found online.  We practiced cutting and gluing by cutting out an egg and a yolk and gluing them down to the picture.

Noah said she liked the Dominique breed over the White Leghorn and colored hers accordingly.  That's how she rolls.

Is that a pretty, new oven in the background?  Oh my!

The next day, we had hard-boiled eggs for lunch.  A favorite for all of them.  I released my "need to be in control of messy things" tendency and let them peel their own eggs.  New textures - so fun for almost two-year-olds.

And of course, they ate them.  All neat, polite, manners like.

And just for fun, and to get the wiggles out on a snowy day, we made a capital "E."

And we attempted a little "e."  Attempted.

Helping your children to understand where their food comes from doesn't have to be complicated.  But it is undeniably important.  And I emphatically insist that your egg education lesson begin right now.  Because eggs are on sale at the grocery store.  Hurry!

Epilogue:  Want to know what Mike Rowe (aka Dirty Jobs guy) has to say about egg farms?  Check this out.  http://www.mikeroweworks.com/2010/02/mike-rowe-egg-farming-its-a-tough-job/ 

Still want to know more?  Read this.


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