By now you’ve probably heard about the huge egg recall and massive salmonella outbreak wreaking havoc on our country. And as someone who eats a lot of eggs, I thought I’d pull together a post to help you understand what ‘eggs’actly is going on and how you might make smarter egg purchasing decisions which will leave you feeling sunny-side-up. (And because this can be sort of a depressing topic, let’s keep it light by seeing how many more egg-related wordplays I can put in this post).
The rise of the fast-food industry brought with it industrial agriculture which, for livestock, basically means growing the most animals in the least amount of space possible, as fast as possible. And though you may not recognize what this looks like as you casually pick up your carton of eggs in the grocery store (or your nicely packaged chicken segments or any other meats), the process that got them there can be horrifying. Now, before anyone fusses at me for glossing over the fact that this industry does create jobs, allow me to direct you to the recent movie Food, Inc. which points out how jobs with factory farms are often limiting and littered with stifling contracts and equipment fees that indebt the farmers to the big-box company for lifetimes (read more here).
First, let’s talk about living conditions. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) refer to the confined areas where many animals raised for food reside. To give you an idea of what this looks like, try to picture one thousand chickens in your bathroom…can you do it? Steven L. Hopp, contributor to Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, reports that 1,152 chickens could fit in a typical 6 foot x 8 foot room. The EPA defines a “large” laying hen CAFO as one containing 82,000 or more hens (and many contain 100,000 or more; medium, by contrast contains 25,000-81,999, while small contains less than 25,000). Further, 95% of all eggs sold in the U.S. come from facilities having 75,000 birds or more.
Tight living quarters means that diseases can spread like wildfire, and that cleanliness is, well, nonexistent. Animal Abuse at Iowa Egg Factories is a video put together by the Humane Society which demonstrates what I mean. Of course, if you’re concerned about the welfare of the birds themselves, this video pulls on your heartstrings (as it’s designed to do), but from a more hygienic standpoint, it shows how easily diseases might spread. And with millions of eggs shipped all over the country every week, it’s no wonder that it’s difficult to control the spread of diseases like salmonella.
Chickens need room to roam–to pick at grass for insects, spread their wings, stretch their legs, and breathe fresh air. I wouldn’t know if they’re “happier” outdoors (although if I were a chicken, I’d be happier outside), but they certainly are healthier, and that means their eggs are too. Want proof? Go to your local farmer’s market, or a farm near your house, or pull over when a sign on the highway says “Fresh Eggs” with an arrow pointing up a long gravel driveway. Crack one open and see the rich yellow-orange yolk standing up all perky in a wonderfully clear film of egg white. And you can definitely taste the difference, too! Once you try ’em, you’ll never go back.
Unfortunately there are a lot of Americans who don’t care or would rather not know where their food comes from or how it was treated before being cleaned and packaged into nice boxes with pictures of pastoral rolling farmland on the front. But if you think about eggs (or any food product for that matter) as an investment in your health, $1.50 extra up front today may save you in diet-related hospital bills later in life. And since you’re probably going to be avoiding these brands for a while, now might be the perfect time for you to locate and sample some local, fresh, organic, or pasture-raised eggs.
As a home cook, until I’m able to raise my own hens, I’m sold on the eggs I get from my farmer at the farmer’s market for their freshness, flavor, emulsifying properties, and because I know the chickens are well-cared for. I challenge you to try fresh, healthy eggs near you. And while you’re at it, be sure to check in and tell us about your ‘eggs’citing adventures by posting a comment. Or maybe you already found your favorite eggs? Tell us your favorite way to serve ’em!