What’s in an egg?

The recent recall of over half a billion eggs produced by two Iowa factory farms has triggered a much-welcome nationwide conversation about the practices of the egg industry in terms of environmental and animal welfare management.

Let’s not kid ourselves: overcooking eggs does not address the risk of salmonella infections. Furthermore, salmonella is but the tip of the iceberg. Our responsibility, as consumers, is to pay close attention to the origin of the eggs we buy and to educate ourselves about the producer’s operations. Unfortunately, no such thing as an independent egg brands scorecard exists, as far as I know–by all means let me know if I’m wrong!

UPDATE September 2010: After a year of research, the Cornucopia Institute published its Organic Egg Report and Scorecard that lists close to 70 brands. Talk about perfect timing!

Cage-free operations are no hen paradise. These residents enjoy at least the rare privilege of natural daylight.

Barring that tool for the time being, here is what we need to bear in mind: a battery-cage egg is not a cage-free egg is not a pasture-raised egg. These classifications have real implications for our health and beyond. To find out why, check out Rodale.com editor Leah Zerbe’s cue cards.

The industrial farms implicated in the latest salmonella outbreak, Wright County Eggs and Hillandale Farms, rank among the ten biggest egg producers in the US. They share a close relationship and provide all the eggs sold under the following brands: Sunny Farms, Hillandale Farms, Sunny Meadow, Wholesome Farms and West Creek, Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms, Kemps, James Farms, Glenview, Pacific Coast, Alta Dena Dairy, Driftwood Dairy, Hidden Villa Ranch, Challenge Dairy, and Country Eggs.

In battery operations, hens don't have room to spread their wings. Antibiotics are necessary to prevent epidemics in the crammed cages.

The Food & Drug Administration’s inspectors who paid a visit to the Wright County Eggs facilities and their 15 million birds, and to Hillandale Farms, reported on various “biosecurity breaches” exposed here in gory detail.

As it turns out, Wright County Eggs is a well-known habitual offender. It has a solid history of environmental, immigration and labor violations, and has faced multiple animal cruelty charges.

Interestingly enough, the FDA inspectors’ visits had been scheduled before the salmonella outbreak and recall, in the wake of the new egg safety rule implemented by the agency last July. It “requires the egg industry to take specific preventive measures to keep eggs safe during their production, storage and transport. Egg producers will also be required to register with FDA and to maintain a prevention plan and records to show they are following the regulation.”

The rule does not apply to egg producers who manage a flock of fewer than 3,000 hens or who sell their eggs directly to consumers.

The largest industrial egg farms, that the FDA believes may be the highest-risk facilities, are especially under the agency’s scrutiny. Starting in September, about 600 large egg producers with 50,000 or more laying hens, will be systematically inspected over a period of 15 months.

This is good news long-term, one hopes, AND it should not give us an excuse to forfeit our responsibility in the kind of egg industry we choose to support with our money. Our health is at stake, and not just our physical health. I would assert that supporting corporations that exploit workers and animals has a subtle, yet real impact on our overall well-being.

Finally, I don’t mean to ignore the fact that the most wholesome, nutritious, delicious eggs available command a steep price premium. My personal choice is to eat eggs only occasionally as a treat, and to favor healthy, protein-rich alternatives like sprouted lentils and quinoa.

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