If local eggs are outlawed, will only outlaws have eggs?
In his nearly 20 years in business, Kim Alexander, owner of Alexander Family Farm, just east of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, has never had a food-safety issue related to any of the food raised on his farm. The Alexander family raises pastured chickens, turkeys, cattle, hogs, grain, and vegetables, which they sell to a loyal following of customers.
Inspired by sustainable agriculture advocate Joel Salatin of Polyface farm in Virginia, Alexander utilizes organic and sustainable practices on his farm but declines to have his property certified organic because he doesn't want the government or any other agency involved in his business. He's a hardworking, self-reliant Christian man who chooses to homeschool his children and make his own vegetable oil fuel to run the farm machinery.
Alexander's clean, efficient operation earns him the respect of his neighbors and other area farmers, and his poultry-processing practices are often used as a model to train area 4-H students. He's a man who lives and works by his principles – one of his most cherished is his resistance to government involvement in his life or his business. While his moral opposition often inspires the admiration of other small farmers who feel overburdened by government regulations, his maverick stance tends to put him at odds with regulatory agencies, as in his recent egg fight with the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.
Kim Alexander's fresh-egg operation consists of about 1,500 laying hens that produce an average of 65 to 70 dozen eggs a day. The eggs are carefully washed and checked for soundness (no cracks) before being packed in cardboard flats and refrigerated at 45 degrees. The eggs are checked again before the flats are packed in dated cardboard cartons and delivered to town in a refrigerated truck twice a week. The eggs travel a relatively short distance from the farm to the consumer and are always sold within a few days of being laid. Alexander Family Farm eggs are a prime example of what Travis County's current farm-to-table locavore movement is all about – getting fresh, nutritious, local food to the consumer in a timely manner. By virtue of the size of his flock (less than 3,000 hens), Alexander is not required by state law to have an egg producer's license and his eggs are not graded ("candled" to determine their freshness – more on this later). "Factory farm eggs are graded so they can still sell them after they've been in cold storage for months at a time," Alexander claims. He staunchly maintains that government licensing and grading would not improve the quality of his eggs or offer consumers any significant protections they don't already have. And that's where Alexander's trouble started last spring.
The 2009 Egg Hunt
One Sunday in April, Olivia restaurant owner and chef James Holmes created a remarkable farm-to-table brunch with beef and pork from Richardson Farms, northeast of Austin, and heirloom tomatoes and other produce from Boggy Creek Farm in East Austin. However, the main topic of conversation at our table that day was the absence of Alexander Family Farm eggs on our plates, considering they were known to be one of chef Holmes' favorite local ingredients. Holmes said that an inspector from the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department had informed him he could no longer feature Alexander Family Farm eggs on his menu because they were ungraded. Holmes said the inspector could not cite any specific food-safety issue regarding ungraded eggs, but he was adamant they be removed immediately from the Olivia kitchen. "Kim is one of our favorite purveyors, and I hated losing his eggs – we used them in our brunch dishes, the pastas, the desserts. This is such a big loss," Holmes said in obvious distress. The farmers with whom I was dining were very concerned about what they perceived as increased government regulation of already struggling small family farms.
Within a matter of days after that spring brunch, several chefs and food business owners related similar stories – they were being told by their regular health inspectors they could no longer sell or cook with ungraded eggs from any source, but the main supplier in most of these circumstances was Alexander Family Farm. None of these businesses had ever experienced any food-safety issues related to their use or sale of ungraded eggs; in fact, some local stores had sold ungraded eggs from a variety of local sources for years without incident or any mention of regulations prohibiting their sale.
The egg controversy raged through the late spring and early summer, with Health Department officials on one side, small egg producers on the other, and businesses trying to support local agriculture caught in the middle. The issue came to a head in July when Health Department officials and Kim Alexander made presentations to Austin's new Sustainable Food Policy Board. The Health Department representatives explained the recent enforcement of a portion of the Austin City Code (adopted from state law in 1998) that states "shell eggs shall be received clean and sound and may not exceed the restricted tolerances for U.S. Consumer Grade B." Alexander made the case 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. The 13-member board took the matter under advisement and will likely issue a statement of its findings on the issue, but does not at this time plan to recommend any action to the City Council.
Making the Grade
So just what was this regulation that was disrupting well-established local farm-to-table connections, and just what food-safety protections does egg grading offer the public? Bouncing from agency to agency in search of the answers to those questions had me feeling like the egg in a proverbial game of egg toss. Austin/Travis County Consumer Health Supervisor Vince Delisi could quote me chapter and verse about the Austin City Code regulation covering shell eggs, but he could not identify a single specific food-safety issue that prompted the recent enforcement of egg grading regulations that had been on the books for years. "We discovered ungraded eggs in a hotel kitchen in North Austin last spring and then made our inspectors aware of the regulations in one of our daily morning briefings," Delisi recalled when we spoke in June. Queried about what egg grading actually is and what protection it offers consumers, he replied: "What I can tell you is that it is the law – we can't just pick and choose which laws to enforce. We don't have jurisdiction over egg producers, but we do have jurisdiction over food service establishments." For more information on egg grading, Delisi referred me to the Texas Department of Agriculture, where the egg grading regulations adopted into the City Code had originated.
When I approached TDA's public information office for clarification on egg grading regulations, I was initially tossed to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which tossed me right back to TDA. Eventually, Bryan Black, TDA's assistant commissioner for communications, provided me with a clear explanation of the regulations and gave me contact information to reach an egg grading professional. The Texas Administrative Code, Chapter 15, Egg Law basically states that egg producers must be licensed and must grade eggs if they provide eggs for resale to food service establishments, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, or food-manufacturing businesses.
An exemption exists that lets small producers (less than 3,000 hens) sell ungraded eggs directly to the consumer from their farms or at farmers' markets as long as they label eggs as "ungraded"; include the producer's name, address, and packing date in the packaging; and adhere to temperature storage requirements. These state regulations have been adopted into the city codes of various Texas cities, and their local health departments have the authority to enforce them. Anecdotal information suggests that, at least in Austin, enforcement of the regulations has closely followed the rise of the local farm-to-table movement.
One Size Fits All
That left me with one question down and one to go – just how does the public benefit from egg grading? Everyone I spoke to – from chefs and grocery store managers to government bureaucrats – offered a somewhat different explanation, and none of them was particularly satisfactory. I finally had a conversation with an egg grading professional from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who helped me make sense of the issue. Justin Keeley is the federal/state supervisor for the USDA's poultry programs for Texas and Oklahoma. He works out of an office in Buda, and one of his jobs is providing egg grading services to large factory farm operations that produce millions of eggs every year.
Keeley explained that USDA poultry quality procedures were developed at a time when American agriculture was moving away from small family farms to a large-scale agribusiness model. "During the early days of World War II, there was concern that American troops should receive only quality food products, and the rules and regulations about egg grading [and other quality measures] evolved from that," he reports. Egg grading encompasses determination of the following: size (extra large, large, medium, small), soundness (no cracks or bacterial growth), and quality (the freshness of the egg is assessed by candling, or exposure to light, to reveal the size of the air cell inside the shell – the smaller the air cell, the fresher the egg). Top quality factory farm eggs are graded USDA Grade A.
According to Keeley, the big factory farm operations producing millions of eggs every year pay for grading services because major food service providers such as the military, giant grocery wholesalers (Sysco, U.S. Foodservice) and retailers (Wal-Mart, H-E-B), and major food manufacturers (Nabisco, General Mills) contract for certain levels of quality. Because of such large-scale production, factory farm eggs can be kept in cold storage for weeks and months at a time and often travel long distances to their final consumer destination. In addition to the "sell by" date producers are required to put on egg cartons, grading provides a level of quality assurance to the major market consumer.
The commercial situations Keeley described sounded pretty far removed from the farm-to-table-within-a-week experience of Alexander Farm eggs. "Small producers can grade their own eggs. There is even a machine they can use to make it fairly fast and easy," Keeley says. In fact, some small area producers such as Jeremiah Cunningham of Manor, who provides local eggs to Whole Foods Market, immediately began grading their eggs in response to enforcement of the Austin City Code regulations. "Initially, the fact that the eggs we purchased from Jeremiah were ungraded was an oversight on our part," says Whole Foods Community Relations Coordinator Elizabeth Smith. "Once we became aware that eggs must be graded, the issue was resolved, and the eggs are now graded."
Kim Alexander, however, remains resistant to licensing and egg grading. He maintains his position that enforcing regulations developed for factory farms on small producers is an unnecessary and intrusive government burden and offers no food-safety protection to consumers. "The eggs I was selling to restaurants and stores are the very same ones that are safe enough for me to sell here at the farm," he asserts. "But we're producing way too many eggs for me to sell them all directly from the farm, and if I take them to the farmers' market, my price would undercut most of the farmers who sell less than 50 dozen eggs a week along with their vegetables or meat or whatever, and that wouldn't be fair to them." At this point, it looks as though his only remedies would be an unlikely directive from the City Council to the Health Department to suspend enforcement of the graded egg regulations or legislation amending the state law to allow small egg producers to sell ungraded eggs for resale. While his stance on the egg grading issue earns him the respect of his fellow farmers, it appears unlikely that Alexander will win this battle. He remains philosophical about the outcome, however, saying, "I learned a long time ago not to rely on the government to solve my problems."