28 February 2007

Where Do Eggs Come From?

Ever wondered where those sixty-nine cent per dozen eggs at the supermarket come from? Or the eggs that restaurants buy wholesale for fifty cents a dozen or less?

Factories like this one:

I've never been inside it (more on that in a moment), but locals who've worked there have described the hens as living in "concentration camp" conditions. Those enormous buildings reportedly house row after row of cages, stacked in batteries high into the air, several hens to a cage. No one is quite sure just how many birds are in there, but our guess is that the total is somewhere in the low six figures. And this factory is small potatoes compared to one in a neighboring state; according to an acquaintance who worked there, that complex covers acres, and has upwards of a million birds. This, by the way, is what economists refer to as "economies of scale." A single complex with 100,000 or 1,000,000 is more efficient than ten complexes with 10,000 birds. That enables eggs to retail for under a dollar at most supermarkets.

Are there, uh, unintended consequences from crowding so many birds into such a small space? That brings us back to the reason why I've never been inside that local egg factory. Try to drive up and take a look, and you're greeted by the sign to the right. Imagine the disease problems you'd struggle with if you spent 24 hours a day in a small, confined space with three of your closest friends. Imagine what your immune system would be like after two years of never seeing the light of day, or getting a breath of fresh air. No wonder the people who run this place are so concerned about introducing germs to their factory.

And speaking of diseases, I had a fascinating conversation awhile back with a USDA inspector. He works full time at a pork processing plant, ensuring that each hog carcass is healthy. As part of his training, he spent time at a chicken processing plant --- as it turns out, the plant that slaughters the laying hens from that million-plus egg factory in the neighboring state. He said it was an excellent education in identifying "problem birds," because there were so many that exhibited so many different conditions.

I asked him, "What do you think that says about the quality of the eggs from that plant?"

He looked at me like I had cabbages growing out of my head. "Egg inspection is a different USDA team," he replied. In other words, as long as an egg is candled and graded and passes its inspection...the health of the hen that egg came out of is of little concern. Eggs are graded from AAA down to B, based on the size of the air sac inside it. But how do you grade the wholesomeness and health of an individual egg, separately from the health of the hen that laid it?

It's impossible to measure in a factory. But I can guarantee one thing: once you begin eating eggs laid by free range hens, raised on a local farm, you will be able to taste the difference. And you'll find it increasingly difficult to stomach (for a whole host of reasons) the under-a-dollar eggs at the supermarket. And you'll probably start asking yourself what the true "cost" of those supermarket eggs really is.

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