The other morning for breakfast I had a poached egg on a toasted, buttered English muffin. Simple—just kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper on top. I love the way the yolk slowly flows into the muffin’s buttery honeycomb of air-bubbles. Perfect.
It was a lazy morning, and as I assembled my ingredients, I found myself reading the labeling on my new carton of eggs: “Naturally Preferred, cage free, grain fed.” And from inside the carton: “Naturally Preferred eggs are the product of our cage-free operation and vegetarian feed based on grains and soy beans. The hens live in open ‘community houses’ where they have feed, water, nests, roosting poles and plenty of area to exercise. Hen’s diet consists of grain-protein seed and vegetable derivatives, with no animal or fish/shellfish by-products. There are no antibiotics or hormones added.” So far so good, I’m thinking.
These eggs, it said, are distributed by Inter-American Products, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. There’s also a reference to a Texas license number. Ohio? Texas? I’m in Washington State! So, I decided to try to map out the trip that my egg took from the hen to the muffin.
The website of the distributor of Naturally Preferred eggs is also listed on the carton (www.interamericanproducts.com) so I clicked around on the site. The company is a division of the Kroger Company (which makes sense, because a few years ago Kroger acquired QFC, where I bought my eggs). It a nation-wide corporation that specializes in producing “house brand” grocery products for food retailers and wholesalers–“quality corporate brands, start to finish, coast to coast.”
There is a surprising amount of information about the sources of the products the company sells (classified into bakery, dairy, and grocery), including an interactive map showing the locations and names of their 36 plants. There are two in the Northwest: Swan Island Dairy in Portland, OR and Clackamas Bakery in Clackamas, OR. But no mention of eggs.
The site also offers an email link for customer comments, so I emailed them asking where their hens live and where the eggs are sorted and shipped. I got an auto-reply from Kroger.com saying that I could expect a reply within two business days. It has been a week now and no reply, so I’ll email them a link to this posting to remind them to get back to me.
I also asked the manager of the QFC store where I bought the eggs. He said he didn’t know where the eggs came from exactly, but gave me a reasonable explanation of the overall operation. For the house brands of eggs (there are several, targeting different markets—like “organics consumers,” which would be me), he believes that Kroger constantly looks for the best sources (for price, quality, market-defined characteristics) and at any time might be sourcing eggs from a shifting subset of providers. He took my name and phone number and said he’d see if he could find out more, but so far he hasn’t called me back.
So at this point, I’m asking myself a couple of questions. Where are these eggs actually from? And why didn’t I buy eggs from “cage-free” hens that live right here in Washington? I still don’t know where these eggs came from, but I do know (already knew) that the same grocery store where I bought them also carries similar locally-produced eggs. This time, without any thought, I just picked up a different brand in a carton carrying the same keywords that I select for.
But now that I have gotten pretty deeply into this question of eggs, I’m asking myself why I select for those keywords. What is it about cage-free, grain-fed hens that I think will produce a better egg? And what difference does it make where the hen is laying that egg?
The first question is easier to answer. I’ve read reports over the last few years about conditions on chicken farms, and I don’t need to pause too long to conclude that birds that have had their beaks cut off or that can’t stand up or turn around in their cages are not happy birds. Chickens aren’t philosophy majors, but no creature needs to be tortured so that I can eat an egg (or a chicken leg, for that matter). But even if you take a completely eater-centric view, surely there is enough evidence that stress makes organisms produce toxins—and toxins don’t sound particularly healthy or appetizing. Along the same lines, given the press around mad-cow disease over the last decade or so, I’m not really interested in eating a product from a chicken that was fed ground up animal parts.
So now I have an egg from a happy, well-fed hen. Why do I care where it came from? Yes, I buy locally grown food and artisanal food products—but I also eat bananas. I drink tea. Why not eat Cincinnati eggs? Really, the reason probably has as much to do with people as it does with products. Yes, I believe that organically, locally grown foods taste better. But I also admire the people who produce them. I want them to thrive! I want to go see their operation, watch them work, and learn from them. Their knowledge and passion and skill teach me to delight in what I eat.
There’s another issue lurking in all this, and it is price. On the day I talked to the QFC manager about his eggs, I also checked prices. A carton of the local Washington organic eggs costs $5.29; the house (non-organic) QFC brand was $2.99—on sale for $.099! For a person on a budget feeding a family, surely that is a no-brainer. Around the same time, I ran into an article in my local paper that mentioned that there are seven egg producers in Washington (larger commercial operations, I’m assuming, outside of small farms that sell at farmers’ markets and so on), and together they have about 6.5 million hens. But only about 5% of them are considered cage-free. Surely this is true in part because cage-free hen operations are much more expensive to run. I have no answers on the question of price; it’s an issue that I suspect I will return to often. Can’t we find ways for everybody to eat well at an affordable cost?
If I ever hear from Inter-American Products or the QFC manager, I’ll update this article. On the other issues, I welcome your thoughts!