Too-Good Eggs?

With the total number of eggs recalled now growing to over half a billion, I wanted to add a few additional thoughts to my previous post on the topic.

As commenter Bill and Dogs notes (BTW, Bill, it’s wonderful having you as a new reader):

I am currently in the city but have purchased a farm on which to retire and raise cattle and chickens. I have been unable to eat eggs since I left the farm and no longer had my own hens. My birds were contented, active and had both commercial and natural foods. … Store bought eggs are so horrible by comparison that I just don’t bother. I will be eating eggs again in a few years.

I’m not a big egg eater myself, but want to underscore Bill’s point: Once you begin eating your own eggs, or anyone else’s local eggs laid by active and happy hens, it’s extremely difficult to again eat eggs laid by “concentration camp” hens. I travel on business from time to time, and simply cannot order egg-based dishes in restaurants. Farm fresh eggs are so good, they’ve ruined all other eggs for me.

Yesterday morning, I used olive oil and a cast iron skillet to saute a chopped onion and three different kinds of fresh peppers. All were straight from a neighbor’s garden (for various reasons, particularly the adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, we’ve been unable to stay on top of our own garden this year. But our neighbor’s farmstand is as good a substitute as you can get.) To this I added four scrambled eggs, laid the previous morning by our hens. Once the eggs were done, I served them onto a freshly-picked and chopped garden tomato.

To my knowledge, a dish like this cannot be purchased in any restaurant at any price. And after tasting it, no restaurant omelet or grocery store egg will work for me.

380 Million Reasons to Own Your Own Hens

380,000,000 is the estimated number of eggs now being recalled in response to a salmonella outbreak.

Grocery stores across the state yanked eggs off their shelves after one of the largest U.S. producers recalled 228 million eggs connected to a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people across the nation, including as many as 266 in California.

On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that the recall had expanded to 380 million eggs.

The eggs, produced by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, also were linked to a number of illnesses reported in June and July in Colorado and Minnesota, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak led to a surge in reports of infection with the bacteria salmonella enteritidis this summer — at least four times the expected number, the agency said in a statement Monday.

Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and can be fatal to young children and older people. No deaths so far have been reported in connection with the egg recall.

I’ve posted about egg factories before, and have often extolled the virtues of free-range or cage-free eggs. There isn’t much I can add in this regard, other than to say: this is one of those times when we really, really appreciate having our own healthy livestock and knowing exactly where our food is coming from.

A few quick thoughts, however:

First, if you want an eye-opening experience, do a Google search on the phrase “DeCoster Farms,” which is the agribusiness conglomerate of which Wright County Egg is part. Pretty remarkable how many different controversies this one company has been involved in. But I guess that’s not surprising, when a “farm” (sic) gets so large and disconnected from its customers.

If you can’t keep your own laying hens, I’d strongly encourage you to buy your eggs directly from a small farmer who does. Yes, those eggs can be a little more expensive, especially if the farmer is trucking them in to an urban farmers market. But they don’t have to be, if you’re able to go directly to the source. Around here, there are several farmers selling eggs for $1.50/dozen. The biggest hassle is making an extra stop, not coming up with extra money. But make that extra stop. Have that extra conversation with that extra person. See how their chickens are being kept. And I bet you’ll never worry about your eggs making you sick.

And if you think you can’t have your own chickens…think again. You’d be amazed at how creative some folks have become at keeping them stealthily in urban or suburban environments. And to my readers back home in Seattle: kudos to your city council for just unanimously voting to allow the keeping of up to eight hens on properties within the city limits! It really is becoming possible to be a yeoman farmer nearly anywhere.

Truly Marvelous Eggs

In a recent post about eggs, I noted that a researcher from Iowa State University appeared on a History Channel program and declared that there is no nutritional difference between eggs from caged hens and free range hens. I’m not sure what evidence she was basing that conclusion on, or if she’d been comparing “caged” to “cage free” hens which all ate the same commercial layer ration diet, or what; one of the weaknesses of television is it doesn’t allow much depth and nuance. I noted that my gut told me that conclusion couldn’t be correct — and, thankfully, commenter Sara directed me toward the necessary evidence.

This article from Mother Earth News is outstanding. Their nutritional testing concludes that:

Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:

• 1/3 less cholesterol

• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene

These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators. We had six eggs from each of the 14 pastured flocks tested by an accredited laboratory in Portland, Ore. The chart at the end of this article shows the average nutrient content of the samples, compared with the official egg nutrient data from the USDA for “conventional” (i.e. from confined hens) eggs.

And later in the article they do address the sorts of misleading statements that the Iowa State University researcher made in the Modern Marvels program. Go read the whole thing.

I should mention that here in Michigan there is very little for our free range hens to forage on in the winter. They do eat our table scraps, but we must supplement their diet with layer ration from the feed store. We hope to remedy this in the future by growing more “winter keeper” feeds such as pumpkins, mangals, and other squashes that can be broken open for our hens when the pasture is gone.

Thanks again to Sara for directing me to this article.

Marvels of Eggs

One of our kids’ favorite television programs is the History Channel’s series, Modern Marvels. We’ve seen nearly every episode, and each one provides a remarkable amount of educational content — while remaining entertaining and engaging.

Last night, a brand new episode aired, and it was about…eggs. As many Modern Marvels do, they began by showing the modern, industrialized production models — basically, taking the viewer through a massive facility in Iowa and explaining the way in which 98% of eggs find their way to market. They then move on to alternative production models, showing the differences between “cage free” and “pastured”; the segment about Eatwell Farm in California, raising hens on pasture is beautiful, and an inspiration for all of us who are trying to keep livestock in a holistic manner (rather than by declaring war on nature). Later in the program, they explore different ways in which eggs are packaged, shipped, and consumed by end users.

They did their best to paint the industrial egg plant in as good a light as possible, but what struck me was the number of times the narrator had to explain that a given practice was “in accord with [SOME OFFICIAL-SOUNDING GROUP OR ORGANIZATION] guidelines.” I think that’s because, really, the concentration camp production model strikes most human beings as an affront to decency and the good stewardship with which animals ought to be treated. And I couldn’t help laughing at the Iowa State University researcher who looked into the camera and solemnly declared that there are no nutritional differences between factory eggs and free range pastured eggs. It may indeed be true when subjected to a scientific analysis, the different kinds of eggs have identical levels of various enzymes and vitamins. But aren’t “health” and “nutrition” about more than that? Does anyone really believe that a hen kept in close confinement with six other hens, allowed roughly 67 square inches of space, who never sees the light of day, and is fed a diet laced with low-level antibiotics to keep her from getting sick…can really produce from her body a fruit that is as healthy as what comes from the body of an active hen who spends her days ranging freely on pasture? (I discussed this issue, including my conversation with a USDA meat inspector who has seen what the hens look like when they’re done laying and heading to the processing plant, some time back here.)

Anyway, I highly recommend watching this episode; chickens are so integral to most small farms, it’s good to get a look at the variety of ways in which eggs are produced and used. Unfortunately, the History Channel isn’t scheduled to run it again any time soon; if I do see it pop up on the schedule, I’ll post an alert on the blog. In the meantime, I understand that Modern Marvels are available for purchase and download through the iTunes store. This is something I have zero experience doing, and can’t even figure out how to post a link to the relevant page over there, but if you’re an iTunes user you may want to give this a try.

Finally, speaking of eggs, look what I found in the barn this morning:

Yes, one goose egg, one duck egg, and one chicken egg (we’ll get many more chicken eggs this evening). This is the first duck egg we’ve gotten in several months, so hopefully our Cayugas are kicking in and getting ready for some serious production. I thought you’d enjoy seeing the difference in size, and what they look like straight from the barn.

Food, Inc.

There is a new documentary out today called Food, Inc. I haven’t seen it, but from the trailer it looks like an excellent indictment of Big Food.

In a textbook example of irony, an advertisement for McDonald’s Big Mac appeared on the YouTube page while I was watching the trailer. I clicked through on the advertisement, which will hopefully cost McDonald’s some money.

Has anyone seen the full movie, and can you give us a report? According to the film’s website, there are no theaters within 40 miles of me that are showing it. If I do manage to see it, I will post a review to the blog.

H/T: Patti L.

Cage Free Eggs

Interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about cage free eggs. Seems that demand is increasing, due in large part to concerns about cramming production hens into battery cages where each has an amount of space roughly equal to a “laptop computer.” We have such a factory near our town, and locals who’ve worked there have told stories that will make your hair stand on end. One ex-employee will not even eat chicken — any kind of chicken, even when we offered to give him a free pasture-raised broiler — because the mere thought of chicken still turns his stomach, some 20 years later.

One thing the article makes very clear, though, is that “cage free” does not equal “free range” or “pastured.” As we’ve been telling our customers for some time, “cage free” simply means the birds are loose in a large building, just like most commercial broiler chickens are raised. It does not mean the birds ever see the light of day, or have anything fresh and green in their diet. Also, as the article mentions, it does not mean the birds are necessarily healthier than those raised in batteries.

Our own chickens are the next step beyond “cage free.” They are completely free ranging during most of the year, and during the summer gardening/fruit months they are kept in movable pasture pens. As I’ll describe in another post soon, these pasture pens give the birds fresh green stuff every day, take them off their droppings every day, and keep them out in the fresh air in small groups 24 hours per day. (And this system has the added advantage of keeping them away from my ripening wine grapes and away from Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s tomatoes.)

Furthermore, on a more philosophical level, our pastured and free-range chickens give glory to God. This is because we allow them to behave in complete accord with their nature; they are allowed to behave in the way God designed and intended them to behave. Were we to cram them into battery cages, we’d be reducing them to mere egg-laying machines.

The eggs from hens raised in this manner are incomparable, and are usually only found at farmers markets or local health food stores. I only wish we could produce more of them without overwhelming our small farm with chickens.