Monday, August 23, 2010

Another spasm of self-rightousness

More than 1,000 people have gotten sick over the last couple of months from eating eggs from two factory farm operations in Iowa. The foodies are falling all over themselves calling on Americans to abandon the factory-produced egg in favor of the local, free-range, pastued, organic (or whatever) egg. But let's be honest about this. We have no system to replace those 380 million eggs that have been recalled, and that represents a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of eggs needed in this country today.

In a utiopian world, we would all have access to good eggs. The chickens would be kept on clean pasture, scratching, making dustbaths and eating bugs, grass, and weeds and a diet of healthy whole grains. I have raised that kind of egg, and currently work on a farm that does it on a small commercial scale. I eat three such eggs every morning, and I love them.

But here are some questions that I'd like to pose to Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan. If we are going to do this egg thing right -- and I think we all pretty much agree on what right means -- where is the land and labor going to come from? The beauty of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) is that they are extremely efficient in terms of their use of land and labor. We can all agree that they do so at a trendous cost, much of which is externalized, but even setting aside the price of the end product, let's simply look at the numbers.

At the farm where I work, we produce about 200 eggs per day. During the period of time covered by the recall -- about 60 days -- we would have produced 12,000 eggs, or about .000003 of the eggs produced by the two farms covered by the recall. To replace just those eggs, our operation would have to be replicated about 32,000 times.

Here's how we do it. The hens are housed in a portable coop known as an egg mobile. It's an old, old design, popularized by Salatin and a few others. We use portable electrified netting to control the hens' ranging, and to provide protection from land-based predators. Once or twice a week, the whole setup is moved to a fresh piece of ground. Eggs are collected from nesting boxes three or four times a day. Every time they are fed, they are given fresh water. Hens are fed a hand-mixed ration that is carried to them in buckets every day. It's a wonderful system that produces great eggs.

Over the course of New Hampshire's six month growing season, when the chickens are out in the eggmobile, it requires about 10 to 15 person-hours of labor per week, plus another hour or so a day of cleaning and packing eggs. For the sake of ease, let's call it 15 hours a week. It also requires about seven acres of land each growing season.

Scale those requirements up to replace the eggs that have been recalled, and you need a land base of 224,000 acres and 480,000 person-hours of labor every week -- 12,000 full-time workers. To replace a fraction of one percent of the eggs used in this nation every week.

If we assume that labor costs $12 per hour and land costs $10,000 an acre and is amortized over 15 years, just the land and labor overhead -- not the chicken feed, the cost of the fence, the eggmobiles, the tractors to pull them, the energizers to power the fence, the hens themselves, property taxes, health insurance for those 12,000 workers, or (heaven forbid) profit -- would cost $3.88 per dozen eggs. The figure Michael Pollan offered to pay in a recent interview with the New York Times -- $8 per dozen -- might actually be a little low. Probably more like $10.

I can hear Joel Salatin now, saying that I've overestimated labor and that eggmobiles don't require exclusive use of the land -- you can run them behind cattle, sheep, goats, on hay ground, etc. I'll concede his second point. However, I'd also point out that my estimate of labor is based on having observed the system first hand in two different settings -- one in which I was a manager and one in which I was an employee, and I think it is correct. And if anything, I have underestimated the number of workers who would be required, because each operation would not require a full-time person, and the hours are not amenible to a normal work schedule. In other words, it's likely that what would actually be needed is something like 36,000 people who are willing to work 12 to 15 hours per week, or who, like me, have other duties to fill in around the egg production operation.

It is possible that if some the operations were near one another, they could realize some economies of scale by setting up an assembly line to clean and pack eggs cooperatively. But any economy of scale in that portion of the supply chain would more than be swallowed up by additional costs of distribution: it costs a hell of a lot more to get small batches of eggs from a bunch of different sources to market than it does to get one large batch there.

The very nature of producing a good egg means not producing very many of them. An eggmobile can house only so many chickens. Nearly every organization that has looked the welfare needs of poultry agrees that behavioral changes make flocks of more than 500 birds inhumane de facto. I would argue that the threshold is a bit lower than that. Imagine being at the bottom of a pecking order of 300. I remember it pretty vividly from junior high. But the difference is that hens don't give atomic wedgies. They kill, slowly.

So in our utopian egg production world, there would be a need for millions of small egg producers, all doing things right, and producing a very expenise source of protein. In the end, there is still a risk for salmonella contamination. We are all assuming that the risk is lower, but we don't really know that. I suspect that if this business model was brought to scale, we would start to see at least some of the same problems creep in. Even chickens out in the fresh air and sunshine can get salmonella. Sure, they're less likely to transmit it to their flockmates than hens caged cheek to jowl, but they do all roost together in the eggmobile at night, so there is a real transmission risk. One thing we know about salmonella -- it's very good at getting transmitted from bird to bird.

And I really have a problem with the elitism that's inherent in taking a stand that this is the only right way to produce food. What do you say to the family that simply can't afford $10 a dozen for eggs? Get better jobs? Sucks to be you? Pollan seems to think that everyone is spending $6 a cup on Starbucks and could simply redirect that money to better food, but I am here to tell you that is not the case. Sure, there are cases where folks make bad choices about how to spend their money. We've all seen the food stamp folks who buy Pepsi and sugar coated cocoa-bomb breakfast cereal rather than a bag or two of leafy greens. I would argue that if the only option they have is $10 per dozen eggs, they will buy more Pepsi and sugar coated cocoa bombs.

And, even if we could fix the problem of how expensive it is, we still have the problem of who's going to produce it and where.

There has to be a middle way. Denmark has zero salmonella in its egg supply. It has acheived this through government monitoring and depopulation of infected flocks. The program adds about one cent to the cost of a dozen eggs. I don't know, but I assume that like in most European nations, Denmark's food prices are much higher than ours to start with, but I seriously doubt that they are $10 per dozen eggs. What is different in Denmark (and most of Europe and the rest of the world, for that matter) is that farmers are used to government inpsection and intervention at the farm level. Our collegues overseas were not only astonished at the opposition to premise identification that arose here a few years ago -- they were astonished that no such system was in place.

While I agree that cheap food is killing us, I think that we also have to admit that expensive food is not the only answer. And we also have to admit that it isn't just cheap food that's killing us -- it is also our reluctance to allow officials onto farms to conduct the sort of independent oversight and farmer education that is needed to ensure good, safe food is leaving the farm gate.