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A young farmer working the sorting machine

Journey of the Egg – From Farm to Table

How does an egg make it from one of our small family farms to your home?

At the Farm

The journey begins in a nesting box, inside the barn, where one of our hens lays her egg. She will typically lay one egg per day, usually in the morning hours. From there the egg will slowly roll down the inclined, padded surface of the nesting box to the conveyor belt that runs the length of the barn. It will usually sit motionless on the belt until about 11AM when the farmer turns on the belt and gets ready to pack eggs in the packing room. The conveyor delivers the egg, along with several thousand others from that morning, to the packing station. A packing machine gently loads the eggs from the conveyor into plastic trays. The farmer, and if they are lucky a family member or two, run the packing machine, pull out any cracked eggs, and carefully stack the trays of eggs onto a pallet. Each pallet contains 900 dozen eggs. The pallet is then rolled into the adjacent cold storage room that is kept at 45 degrees.

On the Road

Once a week, one of our fleet of “Rooster Cruiser” trucks will turn into the farm and roll up to the small loading dock next to the cold storage room. At that time, the week’s worth of eggs, somewhere between ten to twenty thousand dozen, depending on the farm, will be loaded onto the truck. The truck will make a few more stops at other farms in the area until it is full and then proceed to one of our two processing plants in Pennsylvania or New Hampshire.

In the Plant

At the plant, the egg will now be rolled into our “nest run” cold storage area. When we are ready to run the eggs from that farm, the egg trays are loaded into our egg washer where they first go through an Organic citrus-based solution. Brushes do a gentle scrub before they get a sanitizing rinse.

At this point things get pretty technical as each individual egg is photographed and cataloged by the computer. The camera is looking for specs of dirt, cracks and other imperfections. It is also gauging the size of the egg so that down the line it will know to send them to the correct packing station for Large, Extra Large, Jumbo and so on. Each egg is also tapped lightly by a tuning fork at this stage to test for hairline cracks that the camera cannot see. Broken or otherwise problematic eggs are pulled from the line automatically. A little less than 1% of them are simply thrown out to become pig feed for other farms and other are sent to a “breakers” line where they are cracked into our liquid egg products. The intact eggs move up the line to the packaging station based on their size and are automatically placed into cartons, never being touched by human hands. From there they go into master cases and are put back onto a truck. See our video of this part of the journey.

To the Store

From here, the trail can get a little complicated. Sometimes, our trucks will deliver right to a grocery chain’s central warehouse and they will redistribute them to their individual stores. In other cases, we might deliver them to an independent distributor to haul for us. And in some cases, we might even deliver our eggs to a big factory farm where they are “cross docked” and loaded onto other trucks that do individual store delivery. That’s because we don’t operate a big enough fleet to drive to individual stores, nor would we have enough eggs of our own to deliver even if we did. So in those cases where a big caged egg company is also the sole egg distributor for a given location, we have to “ride along” with them. That’s why you can see our trucks backed up to these mega farms. It’s not because we’re picking up eggs there, it’s because we’re delivering them there! Not an ideal situation, but for us, the only way to get our eggs where they need to go.

On Your Table

The final leg of the journey is from the store’s back room out to the egg shelf, and then home to your kitchen table. The typical time from nest to table is about 25 days. That is well within what USDA recommends for fresh egg consumption and still leaves plenty of time for you to store in your refrigerator before eating. We print the “Best By” date right on our carton as to when we recommend you consume the eggs by. But don’t worry, eggs are very resilient to spoiling and it’s possible to eat them beyond that date and be fine. We don’t recommend that of course, but typically you only lose a little bit of freshness. A good test if you’re not sure of an egg’s freshness is to drop it into a bowl of water. If it sinks, it’s still fresh. If it floats, that means that the egg has had time to develop air pockets between the shell and the egg and it’s time to toss it.

Once your eggs are safely home from the store and in the fridge, it’s time to cook them up!  If you’re looking for recipe inspiration, here are some of our favorites.

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Getting the Girls Outside – Our Outdoor Access Policy

About a decade ago, we made the decision to stop growing our home farm here in New Hampshire to meet the rising demand for our eggs and to instead partner with dozens of small, family farms that need a market for their organic, free range eggs. That was a great decision, for many, many reasons that I’ve touched on in this blog, but it is also considerably more complex than just building more barns on our property. These are independent farms, spread across the country. So it is vital that we have a great relationship with them to insure that our high standards of quality and humane animal care are never compromised.

One of the ways we do that is by having an Outdoor Access Policy that each farmer agrees to adhere to. Why? Well here’s a little fact you may not know. It’s much safer and easier for a farmer, even conscientious ones like ours are, to keep their hens inside the barns. The flock represents their family’s livelihood, and without their flock, and the eggs they lay, that livelihood could disappear. So naturally, they want to protect it. And while the pasture is something hens clearly enjoy, it’s not as safe as being inside. Threats include predators like foxes and weasels, Avian Influenza from passing migratory foul, cold weather, and even rain and standing water. Hens are a bit like kids, they don’t always know what is good for them and can easily become sick by too much exposure to chilly, cold weather or rain. On top of all that, the farmers want them to learn to lay their eggs in the nesting boxes inside, otherwise, the labor to collect the eggs becomes untenable. So for all these reasons, it can be tempting to keep the girls inside. Most of our farmers enjoy seeing their hens in pasture every day so much, they don’t need to be encouraged to open up the doors, but to make absolutely sure that all our flocks are getting the same humane treatment, we have our policy.

Some of the stipulations include:

  • If the temperature is below 45 or above 93 degrees Fahrenheit, we recommend keeping the hens inside.
  • If there is rain, snow or standing water, we recommend keeping them inside until it clears.
  • During the short period when the hens are laying their first eggs, the farmers need to train them to lay in nests to ensure they do not lay eggs outside.
  • During high-risk periods where a disease like Avian Influenza is a known hazard for that area, in consultation with our team of experts, we may request that they keep the flock inside.
  • Lay times – most of our hens become accustomed to laying in the morning hours. In order to accommodate laying in nest boxes rather than pasture, they may keep the flock inside during the morning lay hours.

They must record their decisions and any exceptions to normal outdoor access due to the above conditions in log books that our auditors can review each week.

This is one of the many ways we are working to help restore human-scale agriculture back to a country with 320 million mouths to feed. It’s a balance between doing everything we can to help the farmers be successful and reduce their risk, while at the same time insuring that we’re farming in a way that is moral and responsible.

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Why We Are Free Range and Not Pastured Raised

                                                        -By Jesse Laflamme

At Pete & Gerry’s, we recognize that the egg aisle is a confusing place.  That’s why we hope to earn your trust so that instead of having to understand every industry term out there like cage free, free range, or pasture raised, you can simply reach for our package with confidence, because you know we’re doing the right thing for hens, farmers, and for your family. My family has been raising chickens for three decades.  We have the hard won expertise that comes from doing something for a long time and constantly improving on it as you go. That makes our company pretty unique in the egg industry. We hope that our customers discover that we care about our hens so much that if there was a better way to raise them —­ we’d be doing it.

For many decades, the egg aisle has been almost entirely caged eggs coming from hens living indescribable lives. Finally, after years of advocacy and the growing awareness of consumers about this barbaric form of agriculture, things are beginning to change. We expect that caged eggs will be a thing of the past within the next 10 years.  That’s great news for chickens, and for all of us. But, it also means that there will now be lots of less scrupulous companies trying to jump on the bandwagon. In most cases, this will be the former caged producers now producing “cage free” eggs, but essentially using the same industrial approach they used in the past. It will represent a marginal improvement in hen welfare, because they will finally be able to move around. But the facilities where they are raised will in no way represent what a consumer would consider to be a farm in terms of scale, crowding, cleanliness or transparency.

On the other side, there is also a group of companies competing to persuade customers that our Certified Humane Free Range standard, which you can read about here, is somehow not sufficient or adequately humane.

Outdoor Space Isn’t An Arms Race

The Certified Humane Free Range standard was developed by scientists and animal welfare experts. It calls for 2 sq. ft. of outdoor access on grass per hen. Now, this may not sound like much if you imagine a bunch of hens all occupying their own little 2’ X 2’ patch of grass. However, it’s important to note that this is just an average over a huge flock, and that not all of the hens use the pasture space at the same time. Not even close. Hens are actually a lot like people in this regard. Whether it’s cool outside, hot, or a delightful 72 degrees, a great many of them would simply prefer to be inside at any given moment. In fact, in a typical flock, there are hens that never want to leave the barn. It’s safe, comfortable, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and there’s fresh water and feed. As a company, we don’t force hens to go outside. We give them ample ways to access the outdoors, and then let the girls decide. If you spend time watching them, you will see a steady stream of hens entering and exiting the barns. At any given point in time, the hens that are outside have far more than 2 sq. ft. apiece. And, they are very social birds, so while they don’t wish to be crammed into giant warehouses, or tiny cages, they do want to huddle into little groups and cliques to cluck about whatever is on their minds. So there is always more grass and dirt areas open than occupied.

Pasture Raised brands are advertising that they offer from 35 sq. ft. to 108 sq. ft. per hen and suggesting that 2 sq. ft. is insufficient. More is not better in this case. More is just more. And it costs the farmers more to own and maintain that extra space for no discernible purpose that we can see. Agricultural land is scarce and expensive, so forcing small farm families to operate and maintain an excess of it just to brag about how much square footage each hen gets seems insincere and gratuitous to us.

There is a category of very small farms that can make the larger space work economically. But those are typically mixed use, hobby-style, micro farms that exist in a completely separate economic climate, selling to farmers’ markets, CSAs, and to their local area at considerably higher prices. Mainstream grocery distribution requires a higher level of efficiency in order to even get on the shelf. So we support this other style of farm wholeheartedly, just as we support backyard chicken coops, but they are a very small piece of the larger change we seek.

Our bottom line at Pete & Gerry’s is first, what is right for the hens? We believe that we understand that better than anyone in the industry, and we follow the independently audited standard set by Humane Farm Animal Care for Free Range. Second, we want to do what is right for our farmers, and that means helping them raise hens humanely without undue costs. Third, by doing the latter, we can deliver great eggs to our consumers at a reasonable price

It is an exciting time to be in the business of producing humane, ethical, organic eggs. In my lifetime, I have not seen the industry change this dramatically or quickly. Over the next year, we believe many more consumers will begin to decide what they think a reasonable egg farm should look like. We believe that a small family farm producing to the Certified Humane Free Range standard is the best way to meet our country’s egg demands in a humane, sustainable way. We don’t believe that means there is no such thing as too much space for hens, and we’re pretty sure the hens don’t either. So we will continue to try to balance the needs of hens, our farmers, and our loyal customers as best we can.

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Paper or Plastic?

A question that we get a lot usually goes like this: “I love your eggs and your commitment to animal welfare and the environment, but why do you use plastic egg cartons? Isn’t that worse for the environment?”

It’s an excellent question. We’ve all come to see plastic as bad. It’s derived from a non-renewable source (oil), it doesn’t decompose for a very long time, and these days, a lot of it is winding into the oceans (see Pacific Garbage Patch and Microbeads Pollution). So it’s understandable that it has a bad reputation.

On the other hand, the molded pulp cartons and the polystyrene foam cartons are not environmental bargains either, for many of the same reasons. So what’s a well-meaning person to do?

We asked Quantis, a Canadian research company specializing in environmental impact of products, to do a complete Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Egg Cartons for us in 2012.

Quantis looked across the raw material sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and end of life/recycling aspects for RPET (our recycled PET clear package), virgin PET, Recycled Molded Pulp (RMP) and Polystyrene (commonly known as styrofoam). They scored that as a total Carbon/Climate Change footprint score based on all of those life stages. They also scored them on the basis of Human Health, Ecosystem Quality, and Resource Depletion measures.

The RPET carton that we use was determined to be superior, or vastly superior, to both the Molded Pulp and Polystyrene as a whole, and across all of the individual life stages, with the one exception that it had a slightly higher manufacturing impact than recycled pulp. It is worth noting that the worst option, was typically the PET plastic made from virgin plastic. That’s because of the high amount of fossil fuels required both as energy and raw material in its production. This is what large 2-liter soda bottles are made from (so think about that the next time you’re considering buying soda). We take the recycled material from those containers to make our cartons. The tri-fold PET also has an important consumer benefit in that it provides the best protection for the eggs while allowing you to see the unbroken eggs without opening the carton in the store.

Once used, our cartons can then be placed right back in the recycling stream for another trip through the system. Paper pulp can also be recycled. Styrofoam all goes to the landfill to wait for the end of time.

So in total, while we wish we could sell our eggs in wooden boxes or wicker baskets that were re-used over an over, we feel as though we’ve arrived at the best possible solution we can for the time being. We ask that you always recycle your Pete & Gerry’s cartons after use and we can continue to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. And thank you for bringing our eggs home in a re-usable canvas bag as well.

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Actually Natural

One sees the term “all natural” all of the time. It is probably the most common two words in the grocery store at this point. That’s because manufacturers know that consumers are trying to find less processed, higher quality products that might have actually come from a farm and not a factory. And All Natural kind of says it all.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean much. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything, because it’s an unregulated term. It probably should mean something. To call potato chips, hot dogs, and things with ingredient statements that are longer than an iTunes license agreement “all natural” seems a bit disingenuous, if not downright untruthful. But the Food and Drug Administration allows it. All it really means is that it’s edible (theoretically). And that’s too bad, because consumers understandably assume that it means much more than that.

(For a humorous take on the use of the claim All Natural, see these hilarious videos by the Organic Trade Association).

In fact, the term sounds so trustworthy, studies show that a higher percentage of consumers trust the All Natural claim to mean no pesticides, no GMOs, no artificial hormones, etc. than those that trust the USDA Organic claim to mean those same things. Yet, that’s exactly what the certified USDA Organic seal guarantees.

In the egg aisle, that means that anyone can say All Natural, because well, it’s an egg, and it came from a chicken. But it doesn’t matter how that chicken was treated, what they were fed, or whether they needed antibiotics in their feed to ward off diseases from the hundreds of thousands of other birds confined to their “barn.” It’s still All Natural.

Hope may be on the way however, as the FDA, in response to public pressure, is reconsidering the definition of the term across all food categories. If you are interesting in commenting, you can go to this web site. The deadline for comments is May 10, 2016.

In the mean time, if you really want eggs from a farm, don’t be fooled by All Natural. Pete & Gerry’s Organic is actually natural.

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Why Cheap Eggs Are So Expensive

At Pete and Gerry’s, our eggs cost a little more than conventional eggs. We don’t apologize for this. In fact, we’re proud of it. We’re proud of producing a great product in a way that is both beneficial and sustainable.

Consider the alternative. Over the course of this past spring, roughly 48 million chickens & turkeys had to be put to death during the Avian Influenza outbreak. In Iowa alone, 24 million hens, or 40% of the egg laying population, were hauled to landfills, buried, or burned. That’s because if a single bird within their massive warehouse enclosures (aka “barns”) contracts the disease, all other birds that could have conceivably come into contact with it have to be put down to contain the spread. So that might mean 5 million birds on a single “farm” are lost all at once.

The loss represented almost 20% of the laying hens in the U.S. This meant an immediate and dramatic increase in the price of conventional, caged-raised eggs that continues to this day. And that wasn’t the only way consumers paid. Several counties in Iowa were declared disaster areas, so taxpayers there were also forced to bail out the huge corporations that make up the agricultural industry in Iowa. Governor Branstad of Iowa also requested federal relief funds but was denied by the Obama administration. Still, the USDA has paid $191 Million in direct payments to farm corporations for their losses already.

This raises the question, how much do eggs really cost? In the store, they might retail for as little as 2 dollars a dozen. That’s because these “farms” have tried to make farming like building widgets. They have created mega factories, scaled up as much as possible, built an assembly line of sorts, systematically eliminated human intervention, creature comfort, or any other detail that could have a small cost associated with it, and built an egg producing machine that can put a carton of eggs on the shelf for 2 bucks, and still leave a tidy profit for the shareholders.

There are two really big problems with this model. One, chickens aren’t widgets. They are living, breathing, thinking animals. So this system that reduces them to egg-laying cogs is cruel beyond belief (and that is probably the best reason not to patronize these companies). The second problem is a systemic one. The scheme has little tolerance. If one bird on a single mega farm gets sick, that means destroying millions of hens, which immediately drives up prices, not to mention requests for government aid. The system is so inhumanely narrow in its construction; it’s just one big house of cards.

The public also bears other costs of giant agricultural operations in terms of waste ponds (giant manure filled puddles that frequently leach into ground water and surface water), the overpowering smells generated by these places, and many other forms of pollution that would not occur with human-scale farming. A study cited 8,400 jobs lost in Iowa as fallout from the epidemic. That means more unemployment claims and a variety of other societal costs. The Des Moines Register estimates the outbreak cost the Iowa economy $1.2B. Figures for the country as a whole are $3.3B.

At Pete and Gerry’s, our small family farms have yet to lose a single hen to Avian Flu. Some of that is due to our careful safety protocols, the close eye our farmers keep on their flocks, and some of it is just luck. But even if we did lose a flock, our egg production is spread out over forty small family farms, each with just a barn or two on their property. None of our partner farms represent more than 3% of our capacity. This humane, distributed method of farming is ultimately a better value for consumers when one carefully considers all the costs.

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Egg Yolks – Two for the Price of One

Have you ever cracked into an egg with a double yolk? Lucky you! Ever cracked into several eggs in your dozen to find double yolks in more than one? A fan did recently, and he wrote to us in amazement to find out why. Here’s what we shared:

Double yolks are fairly rare – you might find them in 1 of every 1,000 eggs. These eggs typically come from our younger hens who are still just learning how to lay eggs.

Double yolked eggs also tend to be very large. They are usually graded ‘Super Jumbo.’ Eggs identified as Super Jumbo are too large for our packing machine to pack into cartons, so they are moved to the hand packing station. At Pete & Gerry’s, these eggs are still labeled as Jumbos, even though they are technically Super Jumbos. As our team fills Jumbo egg cartons with the Super Jumbo eggs, of which more than 50% of which will include an extra yolk, that makes something fairly rare in nature suddenly appear rather common.

So if you crack open a Pete & Gerry’s egg and find a double yolk, you’ll actually be pretty likely to find another ‘eggstra’ yolk or two in that same dozen. And because those cartons are hand packed and placed in cases together, you could find a whole grocery display of Jumbo dozens that have a high likelihood of containing a double yolked egg or two!

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Good News for Good Food

For many years, eggs were considered a cholesterol-packed villain in the story of you versus heart disease, and many people erroneously limited – or altogether avoided – eggs as a part of their regular heart healthy diet.

Now a report from a panel of U.S. nutrition and medical experts is debunking that myth for good. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a federal publication that has far-reaching impact on our food choices, announced “cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” Meaning, eggs can shake off the bad reputation and be recognized as a nutritious and convenient part of your healthy, well-balanced diet.

And there’s more! According to CNN, the report also identifies under-consumed “shortfall nutrients,” including vitamins A, D, and E, as well as folate, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. You can find all of these nutrients and a slew of others in – you guessed it – EGGS!  To read the complete article from CNN, click here: “Cholesterol in food not a concern, new report says

So go ahead. Crack in to our eggs for breakfast, for dinner, or anytime. They’re good for you!

To read more about the nutritional benefits of eggs for you and your family, click here

Focusing on Profitable Partnerships

Recently, chickens have been in the news, and not always for great reasons, such as with bird flu and the attention inhumane practices have received after California passed Proposition 2, forbidding the use of battery cages for producing eggs.

Another news story about chickens that we’ve noticed is about farmers who work under contract for big meat poultry companies. The arrangement works like this: the farmer owns the land, structures and equipment. The poultry company sends them chickens and the feed necessary to raise them. The problem comes when the company continually demands that they modify their facilities in various expensive ways, but do not support that with higher payments to the farmers. Furthermore, they apply a “tournament system” whereby if your birds don’t grow as fat on the same feed as a neighboring contract farm, your payments will be cut and you can even be terminated as a contractor with little notice. Finally, if a farmer requests a change to their facility to improve the quality of life for the birds, they will often be told no and can be subject to additional sanctions, inspections, or pay cuts. This is a fairly ruthless, but still quite common, course of business in the industry.

Pete & Gerry’s also works with independent, small family farms to produce our eggs. But there are some very significant differences with how we do business with our farmer partners.

First of all, our farmers are partners, in every sense of the word. They are offered guaranteed prices to follow the strict guidelines for Certified Humane farming.

Second, we do not use a tournament system to constantly weed out our less efficient farmers. Instead we sign long-term contracts and do not penalize them for production issues that are not in their control, and will instead lend them a hand. We send our farm technicians to their homes to help them with issues that affect production like lighting, airflow, and temperature in the barn. We never pressure them to increase production by doing something that impairs the welfare of the hens, or the family that tends to them.

Third, instead of cutting corners, we continually work to improve conditions, such as our recent accomplishment of getting 100% of our farm partners on a Certified Humane Free Range standard. This is the opposite of the approach some of these other companies take. We are a Certified B-Corp, which means that we seek to meet a triple bottom line of financial, social welfare and environmental standards.

In the past decade of farming under our current partnership system, we have never terminated a farmer for poor financial performance and we have never had a farmer sue us, or leave us because they were unhappy with the partnership. That’s something we’re very proud of.

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Bird Flu Remains a Concern

This is an update on the Avian Influenza (AI) Outbreak of 2015. For those that are just catching up to this story, this is perhaps the worst episode of AI in U.S history and certainly in the past ten years. Millions of hens, primarily in the Midwest and West, have had to be destroyed to stem the spread of the disease. AI, or “Bird Flu” is carried by migrating flocks of wild fowl like ducks and geese. It is not harmful to them, but it is deadly to domestic chickens and turkeys. The wild birds spread it by landing on, or near, farms, and then they can spread the virus to hens, even to those confined in cages in big agricultural facilities. Only about 10% of hens in the U.S. have actual access to the outdoors like ours, yet the other 90% of industrial caged facilities have been some of the hardest hit. One facility in Iowa had to destroy over 5 million birds. No one is exactly sure about all the ways that it may spread. Theories range from careless workers who carry the virus in on their shoes or clothing as they enter an enclosure to pond water that is infected and then used for the birds to drink. Conventional egg prices have skyrocketed as a result of the loss of over 40 million laying hens in the U.S. this year.

At Pete & Gerry’s Organics, we have yet to lose a single bird to AI. There are probably several reasons for this:

  • Our small family farms are primarily on the East Coast and the heart of the outbreak has come via the Mississippi River Flyway migration route.
  • Our farmers are small, family business owners who are in their barns every day and follow a very rigid biological safety protocol.
  • During the worst months of the outbreak we kept our free range hens in their still quite comfortable and roomy barns as advised by the USDA and Humane Farm Animal Care, our certification agency on humane standards.
  • Some good luck.

Caution remains the order of the day going forward. Cooler weather in the fall, combined with the return migration of wild fowl over farm areas, could very well lead to new outbreaks. So while we have been able to let our girls out a bit in the summer sunshine during July and August, we will continue to be extremely vigilant about following all safety guidelines until we are certain that the risk has passed. Hopefully, that will be next spring, but none of the experts are quite sure yet what we’re dealing with, given how severe the current outbreak has been.