Farms Finest: Chicken and egg politics
Special to The Aspen Times
Feathers are flying in the henhouse and better chicken days are coming soon, at least to California. The Golden State’s voters and lawmakers recently passed a law, which takes effect next year, that will improve the lives of millions of chickens as well as the quality of eggs being produced.
Unbelievably, though, Chris Koster, who is the attorney general for Missouri, is protesting this new poultry law. He’s going so far as to sue in federal court and try to overturn this ruling. Why would he spend his valuable political efforts on chicken legislation, or even care?
It goes to show how big and powerful the food business really is. Seems that the state of Missouri has nearly 2 billion eggs a year to sell, and Koster claims that this new law is a violation of a “commerce clause” for doing business state to state. Fortunately all states can make their own food and safety laws, provided that they are in the public’s best interests and will not discriminate against other businesses. This new California law meets these standards because every egg producer that wants to sell in California must abide.
This is good news for the chickens because it will require cage sizes to increase from the previous size of a 67-square-inch box-shaped container to a total of 116 square inches. In the industry, these smaller cages are called “battery cages” and are the poultry industry’s answer for mass housing using the least amount of space.
Healthier and happier chickens produce better-quality eggs for the consumer. In deplorable and congested conditions, the stage is set for undesirables like salmonella. Roughly 280 million laying hens in the U.S. currently live in these tight, insanity-inducing confines. The European Union banned the use of battery cages in 2012.
Once eggs finally do arrive in the grocery store, more politics are mixed in. It appears that organic eggs are in very high demand, as consumers feel this is a guarantee that the eggs will be a better product. The problem is that the production of organic eggs is way down and they are becoming less available. This is due to it being more difficult to find organic grain for the hens. Most poultry feed is made from ground-up corn and soybeans, and unfortunately much of our American-grown products are genetically modified corn and soy.
In the most bizarre series of twists and turns, we are forced to buy organic grain from farmers in India, China and Argentina. We currently import more than half of our organic soybeans from abroad, and the once-meandering stream is getting faster and wider with the organic corn demand increasing for many other food products.
The difficulty with getting organic poultry feed raises the cost of materials, which results in more expensive organic eggs. Just because it says “organic” does not mean it was grown or raised in the U.S. Slowly our needs for food supplies are reaching farther and farther away to stock local store shelves. What has happened to being sustainable and environmentally minded? Can you trust the health standards on foreign food imports?
The next time you’re grocery shopping, another consideration is the egg carton’s expiration stamp. However helpful this is intended to be for the consumer, the date is calculated from the time of packaging. A full 30 days are allowed for shipping an egg from hen to a package before it is date-stamped. It is important to question the true value and meaning of descriptive terms like “free range,” “pasture raised,” “organic” or “cage free.” If you want fresh eggs, the best approach is to find your local farmer and strike up conversation with them.
Joni Keefe currently works for a commercial airline while continuing to write about agriculture and food. Follow Farms Finest on Twitter, on Facebook and in The Aspen Times on Sundays.
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