Simple economics drive demand for eggs, safety

By Brian Bookey

I am a third-generation Snohomish County chicken farmer and producer of eggs and egg products. Back in February, I wrote The Herald asking it to consider endorsement of proposed federal legislation that would set national standards for the housing of egg laying hens. That request went unanswered until a recent editorial, “Problem bigger than cages,” did indicate that the proposed legislation should be passed, but called into question egg producers and the safety of their product, and further questioned whether there is sufficient demand for eggs to match the supply from the nation’s laying hens.

In 2010, there was a well-publicized nationwide recall of eggs from a large egg production farm in Iowa after the report of human illness believed to be caused by salmonella enteritidis bacteria in eggs from that farm. This incident occurred just prior to the July 2010 effective date of the FDA Egg Safety Law.

That law currently requires all farms with more than 50,000 birds to take samples from their buildings to determine if salmonella enteritidis is present in the environment and if present to do further testing of eggs. Eggs found to be contaminated must be diverted to an egg products plant for pasteurization and cannot enter the shell egg market. The law provides for inspections by FDA to insure compliance.

In 2011, FDA inspected 400 farms to verify compliance and in many cases took their own environmental samples. This July, the Egg Safety law will be extended to farms with more than 3,000 birds and FDA inspections will be done at each of those farms not inspected last year. The recently proposed hen care legislation, which The Herald has endorsed, does not address food safety because the federal FDA Egg Safety Law has already covered those issues.

Per capita consumption of eggs is about 250 eggs per person, per year in the United States. About 30 percent of that consumption is of eggs that have been broken out of the shell and sold as liquid, frozen, or dried egg products and consumed in that form or included as an ingredient in manufactured food products. America’s egg farmers must produce to the level of demand represented by the number of eggs consumed in all forms. If they overproduce, a national surplus will develop and prices will go down, sometimes below the cost of production, creating losses for farmers.

Those losses motivate farmers to reduce production, eventually causing national supply and demand to reach balance.

There are hundreds of millions of people in this country consuming eggs. With per capita demand as stated and the egg laying capability chickens being what it is, it takes hundreds of millions of chickens in the U.S. to cover domestic and export demand. That should answer in the affirmative The Herald’s “basic economic question” as to whether there is demand to keep the nations egg production facilities “churning out millions of eggs from millions of chickens”.

Food waste is a challenge that must be tackled, but The Herald’s suggestion that, because of that waste, egg production should be reduced is completely unsubstantiated and would only create a shortage resulting in increased prices to the consumer. That is simple economics, as I mentioned above. Improvements in the safe handling and manufacturing of food products, including eggs, must continue through advancements in technology and constant attention to the issue through each level of production and handling, including at the consumer level. The nation’s egg producers are at the forefront of that effort.

As early as our childhood exposure to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, we have known that eggs break easily. It is a challenge to keep the product inside intact and safe till it reaches the consumer’s plate. In the egg products part of our business, we break eggs on purpose. Eggs taken out of the shells by our processing machines are much more efficient than eggs removed from the shell manually by the consumer, where up to 30 percent of the white can end up staying with the shell.

The large volume of shells from the breaking operation can be used as a source of calcium in poultry feed or as fertilizer and egg that isn’t deemed suitable for human consumption can be dried for pet and animal foods or become an input to a biogas plant that produces energy.

I am proud to be a local farmer and producer of quality eggs and egg products and I know that the 300 or so Snohomish County employees of our family-owned and operated farming business share that pride. Like most farmers, we work mostly outside the public eye and don’t often get the chance to explain what we do to the public, so I am glad to have had the opportunity to do so.

Brian Bookey is President of National Food Corp, based in Everett.