The Blogging Farmer
Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming



The Egg and Us

This month I intended to offer my musings and perspectives on cattle ranching vs. farming—but there's been a big news story in the media recently that brings up a whole lot of issues, and puts all other issues on the back burner.

That's the big salmonella scare and the massive egg recall that was a result. Could this all have been avoided—and would you, as a consumer, have been willing to pay an extra penny per dozen (that's .01c, folks) to have stopped it from happening?

To me, this whole thing brings up four primary issues:

1. Corporate consolidation and increasing control of our food supply
2. The importance of localizing food production
3. The questionable methods used by commercial egg farms
4. The role of our democratically-elected government

Let's look at these one at a time.

Too Big To Fail—Or Just Too Big?

Over a century ago, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt recognized the danger of Big Business getting too damn big. His administration forced the break-up of the largest corporations in the country at the time. This was a good thing for consumers—it forced competition in the marketplace and kept business honest and more responsive to human needs.

Since the early 1980s however, this has all been largely undone—and today, there are corporations so huge and powerful that they are telling sovereign governments (here and abroad) what to do. Focusing on just the egg industry, in 1987 there were 2,500 different companies around the country producing eggs for the retail market. Today, there are only 192. Most of these eggs come from the only five states: Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California. What happens is that a few producers sell millions of eggs under thousands of brand names—and when something like this salmonella outbreak happens, it makes it harder than heck to find out what happened, where and why.

If there had been a lot more smaller producers selling under their own name, this wouldn't have been a problem.


The long distribution chain is also a serious problem. Aside from the costs of transporting food hundreds of miles from its point of origin it's hard to hold a faceless mega-corporation two thousand miles away accountable for anything—and they have little incentive to be accountable. On the other hand, a farmer who depends on his neighbors' good will has a lot of incentive to stay honest and provide a safe, healthy product.

'Nuff said.

Even Birds Deserve Kindness

healthy poultryLike any kind of factory farming, commercial egg farms are not only often cruel (these poor birds are confined to tiny steel cages, stacked several high) but are breeding grounds for disease. Fortunately, this is something that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of; more and more, folks are willing to pay extra for "free range eggs" from producers who let their chickens wander around in the fresh air. (yes, I know even free range can be improved, but it's better that non-free range. Chick steps here, folks, chick steps) Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to pay $2.50 to $4 for a dozen eggs if the factory-farmed ones are $1 to $1.20 a dozen (and that situation is not getting better for a lot of people).

Still, maybe the big boys are getting the message.

Some Regulations Aren't That Bad?

It's been real popular to bash government for the past thirty years—yet somewhere along the line, Americans have forgotten that the government is supposed to be us. Instead, we've allowed private business to take over completely (and very little of it is even American business anymore).

The difference is, while elected representatives are accountable to We The People, corporations are accountable to nobody except the bottom line. A corporation will gladly destroy communities and human lives in order to increase their profits by the smallest margin. (Can you say "Rust Belt?" Can you say "Offshoring"?)

Consider this: food producers (and other industries) have resisted regulation, buying off Congress and even writing their own laws (through lobbyists) for years. They didn't want "Big Government" telling them to vaccinate their chickens! Heck, we're the private sector! We can do it better!, these conglomerates were trusted to deal with the problem themselves. They chose to cut costs and raise profits by foregoing those vaccinations. Here's the kicker: those vaccinations, which would have prevented this whole thing from happening, would have cost...$.01 per dozen eggs. By the way, if we were more localized, lots more smaller operations, this whole vaccination step probably wouldn't be necessary.

Now, it's going to cost them a whole lot more.

Even the Pentagon's not that wasteful.
Posted on August 30, 2010


Hello, and thanks for checking out my blog.  My name is Alex Tiller and I grew up in rural Ohio (Clark County) where my family still owns farmland (corn and beans). I am a member of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers and am also an agribusiness author/blogger. I write about commercial farming, family farms, organic food production, sustainable agriculture, the local food movement, alternative renewable energy, hydroponics, agribusiness, farm entrepreneurship, and farm economics and farm policy. I visit lots of farms in different areas of the country (sometimes the world) that grow all kinds of different crops and share what I learn with you through this blog.

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