By Chad Gregory
Special to Poultry Times
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “The only constant in life is change.” There are perhaps no better words to apply to the work of the nation’s egg farmers in the past year or to what lies ahead for them. The world of egg production seems to be a series of never-ending conversations about everything from hen housing and food safety to state legislation and sustainability initiatives.
As 2019 comes to a close, these top issues continue to shape the industry.
Numerous restaurant, foodservice and retail companies have announced intentions to transition their egg supply, with deadlines ranging from 2020 to 2025 and beyond. Many of these announcements have resulted from increased pressure from activists regarding sourcing of foods. And indeed, as the regularly released EggTracker by Compassion in World Farming demonstrates, activist groups are closely watching the transition situation unfold.
What’s important to remember is that hen housing transitions are challenging, costly and time-consuming. U.S. egg farmers have been changing production to cage-free as requested by and in close collaboration with their customers. Customers have been clear about wanting to assure a steady supply of safe, affordable eggs, and consumers continue to want choices at the grocery store. Egg farmers are transitioning their production with those needs in mind, side-by-side with their customers.
As some of these deadlines approach, it is recognized that not all egg farms will transition, and not all egg farms will transition to 100 percent cage-free. It is likely that the U.S. egg industry will continue to include traditional cage housing, cage-free housing and other specialty production methods to meet the diverse needs of its customers.
Egg farmers maintain a firm commitment to the production of safe eggs. UEP has long valued the close professional relationship it has maintained with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as the agency has developed, implemented and enforced the Egg Safety Rule. Recognizing UEP’s role as a food safety leader, in October 2019, the UEP board of directors voted unanimously to expand both the membership and the mission of the Food Safety Advisory Council. The enhanced Food Safety Advisory Council will include members who are recognized experts in toxicology, epidemiology, genomics, regulation, sampling methodology, academia and research, and a variety of other fields.
The use of Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) has rapidly changed the way food safety outbreaks are investigated in the U.S. and across the world. WGS offers substantial benefits in the identification and attribution of foodborne illness outbreaks.
There has been misunderstanding and confusion about the science of WGS and how the public health and regulatory communities are using it, and striking the right balance in its use will be key. UEP continues to advocate for continuing dialogue and expert opinion on the standards for finding a “match” between or among different samples.
UEP also has identified a need to educate small-scale egg farms in food safety best practices including, but not limited to, compliance with the Egg Safety Rule, and the organization is seeking collaborative opportunities to do so with FDA. Many of these farms are not members of UEP and therefore are not regularly exposed to the food safety information and educational programs from which our members benefit. The growing popularity of sales through farmers markets and similar venues makes it increasingly important to ensure that good food safety practices are implemented at all scales of production, including the smallest.
There is much conversation in the animal agriculture community about sustainability and a renewed focus on making production decisions that benefit people and our planet while maintaining profitability. In particular, younger generations are making purchasing decisions not only on quality and price, but also on whether brands effectively represent their commitment to being “green” in food production. Customers also are seeking opportunities to tell their sustainability stories, and as such, are looking to their supply chains for meaningful stories and data to do so.
UEP has embraced this drive toward more sustainability in egg production by serving as a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Poultry and Eggs, which will focus on three areas of sustainability: social, economic and environment. The Roundtable represents a broad group of stakeholders from the poultry and egg value chain, including growers, integrators, processors, breeders, brands, retailers, foodservice, technology providers, and animal welfare and environmental organizations, who will help advance sustainability through the entire value chain.
Poultry members of the Roundtable will work collaboratively to define essential sustainability measures, seek opportunities to reduce duplication, support the education of customers and provide shared transparency for the entire poultry sector.
State legislative changes
In January of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments related to state laws on animal welfare, which involved hen housing laws in California and Massachusetts and the real concern about the impact of these laws on interstate commerce. This decision paved the way for these laws, as well as those in numerous other states, to remain in place.
Eight states currently have laws in place regarding hen housing and egg production, including recent changes to laws in both California and Oregon. Most recently, new legislation passed in Michigan that will create a new cage-free standard and requires compliance by the end of 2024. Still others may be targets of animal rights activists, either through the passage of state legislation or by ballot initiative.
Without question, this patchwork of state laws creates challenges for U.S. egg farmers and their customers. UEP’s farmer-members support all types of hen housing and will comply with new laws, as they are implemented.
In 2020, UEP will continue to closely monitor these issues, advocate on behalf of our farmer-members and partner with others in the agriculture community to identify and execute strong programs that assure the safety of our food supply, the health and well-being of our animals and the long-term success of our industry.
Chad Gregory is president of the United Egg Producers with offices in Johns Creek, Ga.