In the wake of the massive recall of eggs due to Salmonella contamination, small-scale and local egg producers are differentiating themselves from “Big Ag” and distancing themselves from the recall.

A rule of thumb in agriculture is that when one segment of an industry suffers, another segment benefits.  Or as the characters in the Chinese word for “crisis” describe it, the flip side of danger is opportunity.

fresh-eggs.jpgFor small-scale egg producers, that’s proving to be true during the massive egg recall, which has pulled 550 million eggs out of the shell-egg market due to actual and possible Salmonella enteritidis contamination.

A  bacterium, Salmonella enteritidis can be inside perfectly normal-appearing eggs. If the eggs are eaten raw or undercooked, it can cause illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I can’t provide people with enough eggs,” Maine farmer Jim Green, owner of Empire Acres, told Food Safety News. “I’ve been seeing more demand for my eggs in the past several weeks.”

Green produces 25 dozen eggs each week, which he sells for $2 a dozen. Customers stop by his egg stand along the road, take what they want out of the cooler, and slip their money into a nearby can.

Like other small egg producers Food Safety News talked with, Green said Salmonella prevention comes down to cleanliness. He gets his baby chicks from a hatchery that guarantees the health of its birds, he changes the shavings in his chicken coops regularly, and when he brings in a new flock, he uses a bleach-based disinfectant to clean the birds’ housing.  He also makes sure the housing is thoroughly dry before he brings in a new flock.

“We’re pretty much on top of things,” he said, referring to the 40 members of the Maine Poultry Growers Association. “I don’t think the recall will affect our members.  In fact, I think it will help.”

Gary Balducci, owner of Wishing Well Acres and president of the Maine Poultry Growers Association, said that like Green, he thinks the egg recall will help the small egg producers.

egg-did-you-know.jpg“More people will decide to buy their eggs from local farmers,” he said. “A lot of people will start going to farmers markets and local farm stands to get their eggs.”

He also believes that the recall is a wake-up call for consumers–that they can’t take it for granted that everything sold in a grocery store is safe.  It has also made them aware that a great deal of the food in their grocery stores is shipped in from large farms many hundreds of miles away.

“People need to take responsibility for knowing where their food comes from,” he said.

But Balducci also pointed out that any time there’s a foodborne illness outbreak in an industry, it’s hard on the entire industry.
“People will stop buying eggs,” he said. “It takes awhile to build consumer confidence back up.”

Balducci sells his eggs–about 50 dozen a week–for $3 a dozen at his farm stand. In addition to eggs, he also raises replacement hens for small-scale egg producers.

“We’re very careful handling the hens, and we don’t use tainted grain,” he said.

He has also put biosecurity measures in place, which includes not allowing anyone except employees to go where the hens are.

And, yes, people have asked him about the egg recall, and early this week, he had already fielded calls from three media reporters.

“It’s all over the TV,” he said. “People want to know where their eggs are coming from.”

In Washington state, egg producer George Vojkovich, co-owner of Skagit Valley Ranch, said he hadn’t seen an uptick in demand yet.

“It usually takes awhile to filter down to the market place,” he said.

Even so, he never has enough eggs for the people who come to the Seattle farmers markets where he sells his farm products.

He said he’s never had a problem with Salmonella, and he attributes that to the way he raises his birds.

“The hens are out in the sunshine and getting plenty of fresh air,” he said. “That’s not like some of the big operations where the houses never have a chance to dry out.”

He feeds his hens organic food, including seaweed and a diversity of grains, as well as a mineral mix.

“All of this costs more,” he said, “but it’s worth it.”

His customers, who pay $6 for a dozen large eggs, apparently agree.

“We sell every egg we produce,” he said.

Referring to the care he takes of his chickens and the eggs they produce, Vojkovich said he believes the main reason for recalls such as the ongoing egg recall is the separation between the corporate offices and the animals.

“That’s where the problem is,” he said.  “You have to keep a close eye on your animals to make sure they’re healthy.”

Vojkovich buys his baby chicks from Hoover’s Hatchery in Iowa, a company whose birds are certified disease-free.

The company caters to small-scale producers and people who have home flocks.

Hoover’s owner Mary Halsted said that while the birds she sends out are vaccinated to protect them from various chicken diseases, they’re not certified as Salmonella-free.

“There are so many strains of Salmonella and so many ways it can be contracted,” she said. “Salmonella is everywhere, not just in chickens and eggs.”

Halsted said her company takes the necessary Salmonella-prevention steps, such as using swabs in the hatchery to collect samples to test for various diseases.

But she said testing is expensive.

“It will need to be less expensive before the small-scale producers can do it,”  she said.

Referring to the effects of the egg recall on her business, Halsted said she wouldn’t be surprised to see demand go up for her baby chicks.

“The past two years have been exceptional for demand for layers,” she said. “A lot of people like to raise their own chickens either for meat or eggs. Hopefully, we’ll see more demand for our birds now.”

Hoover’s hatches 3.5 million layers and broilers each year, with about 30 to 40 percent of the birds sold for egg production.

Out in the market place, the egg recall is keeping egg farms that cater to local and regional markets busy assuring their customers that their eggs are not part of the recall.

“Wilcox eggs are not involved with any recall that you might have heard about,” says the message on the Wilcox Farms Website.

wilcox-farms-banner.jpgThe message also tells readers that Wilcox (logo pictured below, at left), which
is based in Washington state, has a “very comprehensive food safety quality assurance program.”

“We have nesting systems that prevent Salmonella contamination,” said Wendi Shaw, marketing director for Wilcox. “We do stringent testing of our (hen) houses and eggs before the eggs are sent out.”

Shaw told Food Safety News that the company has been fielding a lot of questions from consumers as a result of the recall.

The farm, which promotes the fact that it’s a local family farm serving Northwest customers, produces almost 200,000 eggs each year, some of which are sold as shell eggs and others as liquid eggs to bakeries and food service operations.

“We emphasize that our eggs are produced locally, that they’re fresh, and that they’re of the highest quality,” Shaw said. “A lot of the stores in this region are selling eggs from Texas and Wisconsin.”

girl-with-chickens.jpgThe farm is currently transitioning to organic and cage-free. The cage-free birds have access to the outdoors.

Unlike the mega egg farms that don’t invite the public in for tours, Wilcox sponsors three events each year so consumers can come see for themselves how the eggs they buy are produced. The farm also holds tours for groups during the summer.

“We’re an open book out here,” Shaw said.

One of the keys to the farm’s “healthy-chicken, healthy-eggs” policy is a system called the Big Dutchman, which Shaw said actually “trains” the chickens to poop on a conveyor belt, which results in cleaner living conditions for the birds.

When asked how Wilcox’s food safety measures stack up with FDA’s new “egg rule,” Shaw had a ready answer: “We met it and beat it,” she said. “We didn’t have to wait for it.”

Another mid-sized company in Washington state, Dynes’ Broadview Farms, has also taken steps to assure consumers that its eggs aren’t part of the recall.

In a letter to stores that sell its eggs, the company says that it “would like to assure you that our local quality eggs have no connection to the [S]almonella outbreak originating at Wright County Egg (in Iowa).”

The letter also says that Dynes’ Broadview Farms is locally owned and committed to providing you the finest quality eggs . . . .”

“No eggs produced or packed by Dynes’ Broadview Farms have any relation whatsoever to the [S]almonella outbreak,” concludes the letter.

One of its customers, the Cost Cutter and Food Pavilion grocery chain, has posted that letter above its egg display as well as a letter of its own, assuring its customers that  “We are confident in the quality and value of the eggs produced and packed by Broadview Farms.”

But through all of this, the question remains: Are eggs produced by small-scale producers safer than those produced by the large companies? And are chickens out on pasture healthier than those confined in large houses.

Opinions range across the board on this one. Some say that the closer to nature, the healthier the chicken and its eggs will be. Others disagree, saying that certain safeguards need to be taken.

Mark Sauder of Sauder’s Eggs in Pennsylvania, said that birds that are free to roam outside can eat things such as droppings from wild birds that are infected with Salmonella, which in turn will infect the chickens.

For the most part, but not always, Salmonella inside an egg originates in the chicken’s ovaries.

That’s why Sauder’s Eggs requires testing of its flocks, not just the eggs.
The company also makes sure its farmers have good rodent control in place and that the houses are closed to wild birds.

Sauder said that years ago, before Pennsylvania egg producers who follow the state’s strict salmonella-prevention guidelines started putting their birds in houses, 35 percent of the flocks tested positive for Salmonella.  “Now we’re down to zero for the eggs that go to market,” Sauder said.

But Sauder conceded that some producers don’t want to put the extra money into taking the necessary steps, such as stringent testing, to prevent and detect Salmonella.

“Unfortunately, that’s driven by consumers who want a cheaper product,” he said.

Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recently adopted “egg rule,” producers with fewer than 3,000 layers on the farm and producers who sell all of their eggs directly to consumers (without holding or transporting them to shell egg or egg processing facilities) are exempt from the rule.

Jason Kelly, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said that eggs produced by small growers are not necessarily free of Salmonella. And he pointed out that the exempted producers account for less than 1 percent of all U.S. eggs.

Repeated calls and e-mails to FDA and USDA asking if this exemption is based on science were not immediately answered.

But Howard Magwire, vice president, government relations for United Egg Producers, said that the exemption is not based on science. Given the very small amount of eggs produced by small-scale farmers, he conjectures that the exemption is based on logistics.

California egg producer Sonia Mora, co-owner of Mora Ranch, which sells 6 to 14 dozen eggs each week, had similar thoughts.

“Most small-scale producers are feeding family and friends only and not the general public,” she said. “It would also be very hard for FDA to monitor eggs sales from small producers.”

In the July 2009 Federal Register Notice announcing the final egg-safety regulation, most of the comments arguing against the exemption said that the small flocks are less likely to have adequate Salmonella enteritidis prevention measures and that excluding them would be contrary to the public health goal of the rule.

But FDA responded by saying that the comments opposing the exemption did not provide data to support these concerns and also pointed out that producers with fewer than 3,000 layers do not contribute significantly to the table egg market, imposing any one or all of the restrictions on them will have little measurable impact on the incidence of Salmonella enteritidis.

Requirements under FDA’s new “egg rule” include refrigeration of stored and transported eggs, rodent control, cleanliness, testing, and a written Salmonella enteritidis prevention plan.

The agency’s goal is to reduce the number of Salmonella enteritidis infections caused by eggs by nearly 60 percent.

Pictured:  Roadside egg stand.  Photo by Cookson Beecher.  Girl playing with chickens at Wilcox Farms.  Photo provided by Wilcox Farms.