Monday, October 4, 2010

Meatless Monday: The "Incredible, Edible, Egg"

The original campaign logo
Back in the late ’70s the American Egg Board (the US egg industry’s promotional arm) launched its “Incredible, Edible, Egg” campaign. The campaign was brought back in 2007, and has very recently been revived with the launch of a new, easy to navigate site, full of recipes, celebrity chef endorsements, egg facts, up-to-date information on egg safety, and videos about family egg farmers and how the egg gets to your table. The Egg Board’s good works are prominently displayed, and the site does its best to rekindle consumer confidence in the American egg industry—no easy task.

One can’t really talk about eggs without mentioning chickens (or ducks, or geese, or some other species of fowl). So even though it’s Meatless Monday, I start my post by talking about the domestication of chickens.

Humans have a long history with chickens. According to, recent research suggests multiple origins for the first domesticated chickens (Gallus domesticus), in distinct areas of South and Southeast Asia around 8,000 years ago. It had long been assumed that Europeans brought the first chickens to the Americas, but it may have been prehistoric Polynesians, according to research from The University of Auckland’s Department of Anthropology published in 2007. DNA analysis was performed on chicken bones discovered at an archeological site in Chile, and the evidence found conclusively that the bones followed the same DNA sequence as that of prehistoric chickens in Polynesia. The Chilean chicken bone is estimated to date from 1321-1407 AD, at least 100 years before Europeans set foot on South America.

Why are chickens (and their eggs) such a big deal? Chickens can be raised in a small space and their requirements for food and water are minimal when compared to other farm animals. With a good flock, nutritious food is always available, and any extra eggs can be bartered or sold for other items a family needs. “Egg money” kept many families afloat during the Great Depression.

The beauty of having one’s own flock of laying hens has driven both the urban chicken movement and the survivalists, who believe that every family should own at least four laying hens. The idea is catching on everywhere. Cities and towns alike have been passing ordinances making chickens legal (subject to certain restrictions). The family who owns the cottage colony in which I stay on Cape Cod even had a flock this year. A search online for egg bartering will show you that in these tough economic times eggs are being traded for all kinds of goods and services. A failed senate candidate in Nevada's plan for bartering chickens as a better alternative to the new health care legislation was highly publicized and much spoofed

From a human point of view, eggs really are an excellent and convenient food. Eggs are rich in protein as well as choline, which has been linked with preserving memory, and lutein and zeaxanthin, which may protect against vision loss. The egg’s high cholesterol count is no longer the worry it was a decade ago: most doctors now say an egg a day is fine for most people. Eggs have a long shelf life, are relatively inexpensive, and can be turned into a meal in almost no time at all. Anyone can cook a scrambled egg! 

Food, Inc.Around mid-century, the small flock on the iconic family farm was replaced as the main source of this country’s eggs. After World War II, with the introduction of antibiotics and vitamins, chickens became the first domesticated animals to be factory-farmed, in small operations throughout the country. Today, however, these have become huge enterprises, with chickens packed into overcrowded cages in a few centralized locations. To give you an idea of the scale of today’s farms, this past Spring, a warehouse in Ohio caught fire, and a quarter of a million hens lost their lives. To viewers of Food Inc. these horrific conditions are all too familiar.

Animal rights activists have been lobbying to improve conditions for some time. On July 6, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed landmark legislation that requires that all shelled (whole) eggs sold in California come from hens able to stand up, fully extend their limbs, lie down and spread their wings without touching each other or the sides of their enclosure, thus requiring cage-free conditions for the birds. Things seemed to be looking up, since this law pertains to all eggs sold in the state, whether or not they were produced within its borders.

Then came the most recent salmonella outbreak at the DeCoster-affiliated egg farms in Iowa (discussed in my blogs of September 14 and 30) and the subsequent massive egg recall. The people at Slow Food USA graphically connect the salmonella outbreak and the “life” in factory egg operations in this short video urging citizens to demand that Congress pass a new Food Safety bill that will crack down on “corporate bad actors” (like DeCoster) while at the same time not hurting small farms.

After watching this video, it’s hard not to experience both fear and loathing. What’s an egg lover to do?

There are several choices.
  1. You can try to shop responsibly at your grocery store. Read the egg carton for the source of the eggs and how they were raised. A guide to what the labels mean is available here.
  2. Shop at your farmers market or local farm stand. Since the egg recall, egg sales at farmers markets have skyrocketed.
  3. If you have the space, raise your own. Many cities and suburbs have recently passed legislation permitting small flocks as long as certain requirements are met.
  4. See if there is a small farmer in your vicinity willing to trade or sell some extra eggs. You might be surprised if you look online.
  5. Consider trying some egg substitutes. I do love the taste of an egg, and I have to admit I have not tried this myself— yet. But I will. And I will get back to you when I do. 
  6. Vote with your fork, as Michael Pollan would say, but also follow current events and lobby your legislators for change. Check out Slow Food USA and Food Democracy Now. Both groups lobby for food safety. Or the Humane Society. No animals should have to “live” under these conditions. And these conditions jeopardize the health of us all. 
I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

1 comment: