Free-Range Eggs Are Not Free

Fried Egg Photo

Image courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

McDonald’s announcement this year that it plans to switch all of its eggs to “cage free” and “free range” AND buy only antibiotic-free eggs and chickens pretty much sets the agenda for consumers and the egg industry for the foreseeable future. No doubt, other foodservice operators will follow. Egg producers that hope to compete will have to adapt. This may be good for social justice warriors (SJWs), but let’s face this future with eyes wide open: this will create serious new challenges for consumers and industry alike.

First, there is the cost factor. Fact is, free-range farming is not as nearly as efficient as caged production. Square acreage, bird density, predation, heightened stress, pecking, and cannibalism all take a toll on efficiency. So, eggs will cost more…considerably more. It will also increase the cost of products that contain egg or egg ingredients. That’s all probably doable for middle-class SJWs and those fortunate enough to rank higher up on the economic security spectrum, but it will also hurt the poor and all other families living paycheck to paycheck. Eggs are one of nature’s most perfect foods, nutritionally speaking, so why would we deny anyone access thereto?

Next, there is the safety factor. One of the reasons that traditional egg producers have been obsessed with controlled-environment production is to keep avian diseases out of the environment. There is avian flu, which has been devastated poultry production worldwide. Avian flu is transmitted to livestock fowl by wild birds and by mammals: not surprisingly, it is especially prevalent during spring and autumn, when migrating flocks of birds let fly. Controlling avian flu is difficult enough in a battery-cage system, it will be even more difficult in cage-free, free-range environments. Especially when antibiotics are proscribed. Avian flu decreases the supply and increases the cost of poultry products.

Then there is Salmonella enteritidis, which is transmitted to poultry (and eggs) via insects, small mammals and contaminated feeds. According to the Center for Disease Control, salmonella infections cause, on average, one million illnesses in the United States, with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths. At present, the major focus of concern regarding salmonella infections has shifted from poultry to fruit and vegetable (and some grain) products. This is only because much progress has been made toward controlling S. enteritidis in eggs by imposing tight controls on egg production, processing and handling. Although annual incidences of S. enteritidis have been on a downward curve, there is a good chance of reversing this trend as environmental controls on egg production are loosened. Inevitably, this will result in more liability exposure for egg producers, retailers and foodservice operators. This, too, will increase the cost of eggs. I yield the point, though, that the data thus far regarding salmonella contamination in free-range eggs is contradictory (it’s may be up in the U.S. but it appears to be unchanged in Europe), but we are still very early in the transition process and data collection is spotty.

Don’t get me wrong! Individually, our chances of contracting salmonella remain very small. But for the millions of us in America that do contract it (fever, cramps, diarrhea, death)…major bummer! To the extent that it is connected to eggs, this will not help egg consumption. I would like to think that a corporate giant such as McDonald’s has properly thought these issue through, but my own experiences with corporate decision prevent me from taking this for granted. Can a fast-breakfast food company really survive and thrive with higher egg prices?

For background, I am the co-developer and co-founder of the technology and company that pioneered in-the-shell pasteurization technology (now, National Pasteurized Eggs, of Lansing, Illinois), which stands to gain greatly from this trend. Today, I own zero, zip, nada interest in that company, although I do retain pride of accomplishment. These views are entirely my own.

Cage-free, free-range eggs are the new normal. Be safe!

Some worthwhile copy/past links for perspective:

Jay-Russell, M. and Payne, M.  Are free-range eggs safer? Special to CNN August 26, 2010

 U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Draft Guidance for Industry: Questions and Answers Regarding the Final Rule, Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation (Layers with Outdoor Access

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