Ovarian Outrage: Where My Chicks At?

Thanks for the eggs, ladies!

For as long as I can remember, my father has been a frequent Letter to the Editor writer. In the highly-educated, liberal, relatively small town I was raised, contributions to the local paper could get quite contentious. A level-headed fellow, Dad most often metaphorically bites his tongue and generally limits his letter submissions to a few a year. While I did inherit my dad’s sense of indignation, I did not necessarily get the trait that pairs provocation with rational, non-emotional, expressive ability. Instead, I have a tendency to rant. Consider the preceding to be a disclaimer as I embark on my first blog diatribe. Dad, this one’s for you…

Earlier this week, Bug and I went to Wheatsville Food Co-Op to grab a quick lunch a few groceries for the week.  During the grocery gathering portion of our trip, I breezed past the egg section, only to notice in passing that they seemed to be out of most of their local farm eggs.  We’re raising our own hens and have plenty of eggs.  So, while I more closely surveyed tortilla offerings, Bug read a sign on the egg case stating that due to a Texas ordinance,  Wheatsville can no longer sell ungraded eggs (and their two local farm egg suppliers, Alexander Farms and H&J Farms, do not grade their eggs).  On our way home, Bug mentioned what he’d learned, and I promptly consulted the interwebs for details.

Although I didn’t find anything directly addressing the eggs in store issue, I did find this article from a November issue of the Chronicle.  I encourage you to read the article for yourself, it discusses the nuances of a regulation that the Texas Department of Agriculture must enforce that requires producers to grade their eggs.  Egg grading involves checking eggs for soundness (making sure there are no cracks in shells – something that small farmers are currently doing), size, and freshness (by exposing eggs to light to determine the size of an air cell inside – the smaller the bubble, the fresher the egg).  In the article, a state USDA supervisor admits that the ordinance is in place to protect consumers from large factory eggs that may have spoiled after being kept in cold storage for incredible lengths of time.  Local farm eggs, like those supplied to Wheatsville, are nearly hen fresh and don’t travel long distances to get into the hands of consumers. 

One local egg farmer profiled in the article is reluctant to begin grading his eggs, stating that “egg grading is an unnecessary expense and regulatory burden on small producers and offers consumers of locally produced eggs no food-safety protection at all”.  Another producer did get grading equipment and is now able to sell eggs to restaurants and grocery stores.  The producer who cannot grade his eggs has been in business for over twenty years and has never had a food safety violation. Farmers with a flock of fewer than 3,000 hens are still able to sell ungraded eggs directly to consumers at their farms or at farmers markets.  I’ve thought a lot about this ordinance and how it relates to my passion for furthering a sustainable food system and encouraging a do-it-yourself approach to life.  Although I’ve calmed down about the issue a little bit and even though my title is purposely sensationalistic (and dedicated to my friend DMF), the whole situation still riles me up.

Ultimately, for me, it comes down to a consumer choice and access issue.  A close friend was recently told by a nutritionist that she should eat more fresh eggs, now she has fewer places to conveniently purchase them.  Sure, farmers can still sell at farmers markets, but farmers markets are limited to a few locations, a few hours, and despite their best efforts, don’t always reach diverse clientele.  Farm fresh eggs should not only be available to people who can shop at a Farmers Market or make the drive out to a farm.  Undoubtedly those farmers reluctant (or unable) to start grading their eggs have a surplus of eggs that they would otherwise be selling at grocery stores.

I do think farm fresh eggs from pasture raised hens are healthier and have often paid more for them.  I’ve always appreciated having the choice between factory farm eggs (which are cheaper, and apparently, graded) and local farm eggs.  So as to not just bitch without providing a possible solution, I think it’d be okay (if perhaps a little silly) if ungraded eggs were readily available with a notice that they in fact “UNGRADED” (similar to the notice on restaurant menus about consuming raw or undercooked meat, seafood, and eggs).

I am hopeful for the future of our food system, especially here in Austin.  The fact that the city has assembled a Sustainable Food Policy Board is a great sign.  We are doing our community a disservice if local farm eggs are permanently banned from grocery store shelves and restaurant menus.  Again, please read the article, educate yourself, and come to your own conclusions.  In the meantime, I’ll just say that I’m the farmers and consumers who are missing out and happy that our three hens are busy scratching away in our backyard turning our weeds and bugs into eggs.

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