Opinion: Has the U.S. egg industry reached its 'tipping point?'

By Guest Author

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By Ken Klippen, President NAEF

September 9, 2015 may have become the U.S. egg industry's tipping point.  The event that could well lead to a completely different way of producing eggs was the announcement that day from McDonalds that it decided to transition to cage-free eggs over the next ten years.  But the media attention focused more on the reasons stated by McDonalds for the transition in that they claimed it was for a more humanely produced egg and for better quality.

 The next day, the New York Times published McDonalds' decision coupled with a quotation from Chad Gregory, CEO of the United Egg Producers (UEP) saying his group was in support of the decision.  UEP's statement of support is tantamount to saying the current method of producing the bulk of the eggs (94%) in the U.S. was not humane and did not meet the quality standards suggested by McDonalds.

That is the tipping point.  For decades, egg farmers sought better technology to produce a safer more wholesome egg and settled on conventional cages where the chicken and her eggs produced are not laid in the dirt and manure like production practices of old.  And this return to laying eggs in the dirt and manure is acceptable to McDonalds and UEP?  It is unthinkable for egg farmers to quietly sit and not say this is wrong.

As the President of the National Association of Egg Farmers (NAEF), I felt compelled to set the record straight.  As a major buyer of shell eggs, I stated in my letter to McDonalds that they have the right to outline specifications from their suppliers, but in claiming the transition was to provide more humane and better quality eggs, McDonalds has damaged the majority of egg farmers nationwide and have put on alert the entire agricultural community.

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When McDonalds became co-sponsors of the multi-year research project Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, the results did not conclude that cage-free eggs are produced more humanely, nor are they better quality. In effect I said to McDonalds they threw those scientists and the egg farmers who believed in them “under the bus”. Every egg farmer knows that increasing the population size of a flock of chickens increases the stress on those chickens due to the establishment of a “pecking order” among the chickens.  The behavior inherent in chickens is to determine the social standing of the individual hens through “pecking” each other.  The individual chicken lower in the social order is pecked the most.  When chickens are housed in conventional cages with 6 chickens, the establishment of this pecking order is minimized compared to thousands of chickens in a cage-free environment.  Imagine the chicken on the lower end of the pecking order among a population of thousands compared to only six chickens.

Concerning the claims from McDonald's about improving the quality of food, I asked them to consider the food safety concerns reported on with cage-free eggs. The Journal Poultry Science in 2011 [90, pp. 1586-1593] published "Comparison of shell bacteria from unwashed and washed table eggs harvested from caged laying hens and cage-free floor-housed laying hens."  This study found that the numbers of bacteria on eggs was lower in housing systems that separated hens from manure and shavings. Conventional cages allow the feces to drop through the screen floor whereas in cage-free systems, the eggs are laid in the same general area for manure.  The potential for contamination is increased.

These results were confirmed in the Journal Food Control published a study June 17, 2014 entitled "Microbiological Contamination of Shell Eggs Produced in Conventional and Free-Range Housing Systems"  The conclusions state "Battery caged hens (conventional cages) are standing on wire slats that allow feces to fall to a manure collection system beneath the hens.  Conversely, free-range hens (cage-free) laid their eggs in nest boxes on shavings and the eggs remained in contact with hens, shavings and fecal material until they are collected.  The longer contact time with free-range hens, shavings and feces would explain the higher enterobacteriaceae counts (pathogenic bacteria) on free-range eggs as compared to battery caged eggs."

I said to McDonalds they may congratulate yourselves on this new policy, while animal activists like the Humane Society of the U.S. will mark their score cards as accomplishing another defeat for egg farmers. The egg farmers themselves are wondering why anyone would want to revert to the former ways of producing eggs that was more stressful for the chicken and may compromise the quality and food safety of the eggs for their consumers.


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There will be some who oppose this viewpoint and will try to marginalize our association or me personally.  So, for the record, the National Association of Egg Farmers has 277 egg farmers as members.  That's among the largest of all national egg associations.  Most are small family farms ranging from one managing 8,000 chickens to others with greater than 5 million chickens.  Other groups have more chickens in their member base, but the larger farmers who can weather the transition are gleeful to see the smaller farmers leave the business and the markets they've established.  me personally, I have served the egg industry for nearly 35 years in executive capacities.  Initially I was the Senior Vice President at United Egg Producers (UEP) before moving to London, England to serve as Director General of the International Egg Commission.  After returning to the U.S., UEP invited me back to head up their Washington, DC office.  I left of my own volition in 2004 when I saw upper management making decisions that I considered injurious to some egg farmers. 

Politico reported September 18, 2015 that UEP had given up the fight in the Massachusetts ballot initiative. On September 21, 2015 Politico reported that our group, NAEF, had taken up the mantle to fight this ballot initiative. The group behind the ballot initiative calls itself  “Citizens for Farm Animal Protection” but the lead organization is the HSUS.  It wants voters to “ensure that certain farm animals are able to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs.”  This appears identical to the ballot initiative in California in 2008 that also led to the passage in 2010 of AB 1437 mandating similar restrictions on egg farmers from other states selling eggs into California.  Six States [5 Attorneys General (MO, NE, OK, AL, KY) and IA Governor Branstad] have filed motions to dismiss California's egg regulations under the new law as violating the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, article I, section 8, clause 3.  Massachusetts, like California, is an egg-deficit state meaning the 6.7 million people in the state will need the importation of eggs from other states to meet the per capita consumption needs of the consumers.  California's deficit numbers approximated 16 million eggs daily imported into the state.  Unable to obtain eggs produced under California's standards has led to short supplies and much higher egg prices than surrounding states. 

The cost of eggs going up from the implementation of the Massachusetts ballot initiative is assured without improving the welfare of the chicken nor the quality of the eggs produced. When California implemented its new regulation governing how eggs are to be produced on all eggs sold in California on January 1 [California Department of Agriculture Title 3, Section 1350 on Shell Egg Food Safety], the price of eggs in the state surged upwards double digits compared to elsewhere in the nation.  In January just three weeks after implementation, the price of eggs were close to three times more expensive than elsewhere in the nation.   January 20, 2015 USDA AMS reported the price of eggs nationally sold to retailers averaged $0.82 to $1.04 for large, white eggs, the price in California of eggs sold to retailers averaged $2.75 to $3.30.  California does not produce enough eggs to supply the population of 39 million people in the state.  It must import eggs from other states, but their production standards limit the supplies available.  Massachusetts will experience the same when it implements its ballot initiative and limits the supply of eggs to its 6.7 million people.  When supplies of a commodity are in short supply, the price naturally goes up.

Lastly, consider the impact on consumers.  Recently the federal government reported a 14% rate of food insecurity in the nation.  Those consumers are struggling to provide the daily nutritional needs to families and eggs have traditionally been a good source of high quality protein at economical prices.  The tipping point for the egg industry will be the tipping point for consumers as well.  That is why the National Association of Egg Farmers has been so vocal in pointing out the misinformation coming from the animal activists and from within its own industry.

About the Author: Ken Klippen has served the egg industry for nearly 35 years in executive capacities.  Initially he was the Senior Vice President at United Egg Producers (UEP) before moving to London, England to serve as Director General of the International Egg Commission.  After he returned to the U.S., UEP invited him back to head up their Washington, DC office.  He left of his own volition in 2004 because of policy differences with senior management.  

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