Thursday, January 2, 2014

Are you doing your best when purchasing eggs?

First of all, Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a t’riffic holiday. I received a very special present which I’ll be writing about very soon. The first batch of our pancetta is now finished drying, and we’re already enjoying the guanciale I started in November. There’s lots to write about!

But I’m going to begin 2014 by mounting my food soapbox. I’ve been doing a spot of research and want to share it with people who care about the quality of the food they put into their mouth. This post will be a two-parter, and the second will blow your mind. Please stay tuned for that one!

There’s nothing like a good egg or two for breakfast on a Saturday or Sunday, is there? Since they’re also used as ingredients in so many things, especially baking, cooks use eggs a lot. But the state of the eggs you can buy in stores is one fraught with difficulties, if you care past convenience about what you eat.

Personally, we’re very careful about where we get our eggs and concerned very much about how they were produced. Those horrible shots of battery chickens, basically turned into egg laying robots, kept in minuscule cages, never seeing the light of day. For many reasons, we will not buy any eggs that were produced that way. I’ve met a few chickens in my time, and they are surprisingly wonderful creatures: loyal, friendly, curious and quite entertaining to observe.

Here in Ontario, where we have the Egg Marketing Board that is very much skewed to favor the large egg (ie: battery chicken) producers, getting humanely-raised eggs means skirting the law in most cases. To be honest, there are larger (but not the largest) producers who do their best to give their chickens a better life. But even so, those efforts fall short of what chickens really need to live well.

So we buy from farmers who keep a small flock of chickens, birds that get to run around the barnyard and adjacent fields in order to supplement their diet with bugs, grubs, worms, grass and other nice things that make up a chicken’s natural diet. Yes, they do get some grain from their owners to help them along, but these are not just free range (a confusing and misused term), they are pastured – and that makes all the difference. [Sidebar: Free range apparently means they’re not kept in those tiny cages. It is an industry term to make us all feel better while doing very little for a chicken’s welfare.]

Does a pastured chicken lay better eggs? Absolutely. The ones we buy (especially during the growing season) have beautiful, almost orange yolks. Because they’re really fresh, the white stands up in a proud, tight circle when you crack one into a frying pan, not running out into thin strands. This translates into a fresh, more intense eggy flavor that’s unmistakeable. There’s also research proof that eggs from pastured chickens are higher in nutrition and lower in cholesterol.

We also know what exactly is in the chicken feed our friends use: no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts. In one case, the chickens are more pets than a source of farm income. The eggs they lay are more of a benefit to the farmer than a necessity.

Will I tell you who these fine folks are? No. Quite frankly, it could get them in a world of trouble.

You see it’s against the rules of the egg marketing board, a government agency that has teeth if it needs to use them. Their regulations favor corporate production primarily because egg quota is just so expensive. If a farmer wants to keep, say, a hundred chickens – rather than a hundred thousand – he/she can’t do so, except for personal use – unless they shell out to purchase quota. The economics means they have to produce eggs in large numbers.

Some farmers skirt around these government regulation, but they could be subject to irate government inspectors and possible fines at any moment. So they sell only to friends, people they can trust to keep quiet. I’ve heard if you put a sign up by the road saying “Eggs for sale” and you don’t have egg quota from the marketing board, you will eventually be told to remove the sign and desist – or face fines. People get around it by putting up signs saying “Fresh Eggs”, which isn’t illegal.

It’s all very silly on one level, and frightening on another. There are many who would like to be able to buy exactly what they want to eat, raised in a way they think fair and humane, but often, we can’t, and in this case, you’re on the windy side of the law if you do. That’s not good.

Eggs are only the tip of the food marketing mountain. Perhaps one day, regulations will become more sensible. In the case of “cackle fruit”, our health would be better off for it.


Elizabeth Duncan said...

I am so glad you are raising awareness of this issue. I have a friend in Wales who pastures her hens and they have won the hen life lottery. It is such a delight to watch them flutter about their business on a summer afternoon. As you say, their eggs, which I believe are joyfully and happily given, are delicious. The chickens themselves are beautiful creatures with sleek, lush plumage in bright colours.
A great article, Rick. Thank you.

Rick Blechta said...

I've been thinking about writing this for a long time, would do some research, and then something else would come up. Today, I decided earlier, was the day.

We are more and more at the whim of corporate interests in buying the food we eat. Whether it's the Monsantos of this world, government regulations that favour corporations, mass-produced food is now the norm.

I, for one, am not interested in eating what these groups are selling. Yes, I am going to pay more, but as often as possible, we buy from farmers, the people who produced the food I'm cooking and serving. In many cases, they're now my friends. When I pay them, I know what I'm getting, how it was produced, and the person who produced it is getting all my money, not a few percentage points of the selling price.

Eggs are one of our most poorly produced foods in many respects. Pork is another. If I have to pay more, and occasionally do without, to eat properly produced food from humane operations, so be it.

The first time I sat down and "talked" with a chicken was a very enlightening experience. They have very distinct personalities and are highly intelligent. The things that are done to them by high-volume producers are shameful. I'll vote with my wallet, thanks, and eat better, supporting my friends, even if it means going against government regulations.

And stay tuned for part 2 of this post. It will be eye-opening, I assure you!

Thanks for commenting!