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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.

17 responses

  1. Gwen price says:

    Love your farming principles & your eggs

  2. Tracey Johns says:

    I buy Pete and Gerrys eggs because you treat the chickens like a living breathing animal not an assembly line. I’m appalled how chickens are treated in othe facilities I would never support them by buying their eggs.

  3. Jen says:

    “This humane…method…”
    I must ask, what do you do with the male birds?

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      Hello Jen,

      Thank you for taking a moment to ask a very important question. Before I answer your question, I’d like to explain a little bit of how our farms work.

      We are deeply committed to how our hens are treated from the day they are born. We take ownership of our hens when they are delivered to us at 16 or so weeks old. Prior to joining us at our farms, these hens are hatched at a hatchery and raised by small family farms in cage-free pullet houses. The hatcheries which produce our hens are operated by companies who own the rights to the genetics of their hens. These hybrid breeds have been developed for commercial egg production and produce eggs at a rate which makes commercial egg farming economically viable. We do not have the resources, expertise, or technology to produce our own hybrid breed of egg laying hen, so we must source our hens from these breeders.

      Once the chicks are hatched, they are sorted by gender. The female chicks will become egg laying hens and are transported at one day old to the pullet house. Unfortunately, there is no role for male chickens in egg farming. Male chickens from laying breeds are not suitable for meat and they cannot be kept with the hens. If we, or anyone producing eggs, raised and kept roosters, eggs would cost at least twice as much. Additionally, in a cage free environment roosters tendency to fight would create a terrible, inhumane environment for hens. So, given that there is no market for male chicks, the hatcheries euthanize them. To do this, the hatcheries use a practice recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association. We wish that there was an alternative, but there currently are no hatcheries available to us that produce chicks without male chick culling.

      As part of our commitment to the humane treatment of hens from the very beginning of their life, we are serious about doing our part to end this practice. We have spoken with company leaders at the hatcheries we utilize and advocated for the end of male chick culling. We feel confident that these companies are dedicating significant financial resources and scientific energy to ending the need to cull male chicks. There are several in-egg technologies which are rapidly progressing in testing and we expect some of them to be in widespread use in the coming few years.

      Additionally, we hope to pledge significant financial support to some research that has taken place at the University of Leipzig in Germany this year. While this technology may not be available in the United States yet, we feel that this is a significant step towards ending this practice and a great example for Germany to set. You can read more about it here.

      While we cannot change the entire egg industry at once, we are committed to building a sustainable business at a scale large enough to create meaningful progress in the way laying hens are raised and treated in the U.S. Currently, over 90% of eggs consumed in the U.S. are produced in horrific caged environments. We are optimistic that as consumers become more interested in how our food is produced we will continue to see improvements in the humane and ethical treatment of farm animals from their first day to their last.

      Thank you for your question.

  4. Ryan says:

    I raise layers much in the same manner as yourselves and your Partner farms. I find it sad you use avian influenza as a marketing ploy to try and push your product. Yes much of the eggs in Iowa are caged facilities, but we are just as susceptible with cage free facilities here in New England with cage free farms once it reaches our area. With migratory bird season it is only a matter of time till this disease reaches our area. These farms in Iowa raise birds based on consumer demands and spending, just as I’m sure the reasoning behind your company expanding production to Pennsylvania. Instead of waging a war between small scale and large scale producers maybe you could take this opportunity to educate producers and back yard growers about the dangers that avian influenza hitting our area might pose.

    1. Tom Piper says:

      Thanks for your comments. We agree that AI is a risk for all. The fact that we have not been affected has at least as much to do with luck of this outbreak, occurring primarily over the Mississipi flyway, as with vigilance. However, we do think that AI is simply one example of how exposed these massive caged facilities are to natural (and man made) risks, because of their size and concentration (to say nothing of their inhumanity). And yet, in a too big to fail fashion, they tend to expect the public to come to their financial aid when either misfortune, or negligence strikes. We believe the best solution for a robust agricultural system is to return to a more distributed system where the consumers of the products are more educated about connected to its production.

  5. Angel G says:

    I wouldn’t mind paying extra for free range and maybe organic feed supplemented, but folks around here want premium prices for conventionally feed.
    Sorry, can’t do it. I think what the hen eats is just as important as how the hen is treated.

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      HI Angel! We could not agree more, which is why our hens’ feed is 100% organic. Thanks for the feedback!

  6. Karie miller says:

    I always buy Pete &Gerrys organic eggs because I strongly believe on humane treatment of animals. Organic eggs taste better and are healthier for me. I want to support small farms. Pete & Gerrys does it all. Thank you.

  7. Pepper says:

    Sarah’s response “We are deeply committed . . . ” is the same reponse Nellie’s Organic Eggs posted on FB. Same company? What happens when the hens are no longer suitable laying hens? Hoping for a happy answer.

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      Hello Pepper,

      You are correct. We offer several brands for consumers who would like eggs from Certified Humane raised and handled hens. The only difference between our free-range eggs (Nellie’s Free Range brand) and our Certified Organic free-range (Pete and Gerry’s brand) eggs is organic feed. The difference in the cost of organic feed versus conventional feed is significant, so we offer consumers a choice of Certified Humane free range or Certified Humane, Certified Organic free range eggs. That way they can select eggs based on their personal preferences and budget.

      To answer your question about our hens when they reach the end of their laying days, we have thought about this and are always open to suggestions or information on other alternatives. There are several options to consider. First, we could keep them ourselves. In order to feed and house our retired laying hens for the remainder of their lives, we estimate that the cost of a dozen eggs would be at least $12.00 at the shelf. We feel that this would not be affordable for our consumers. Additionally, it would prevent us from achieving our broader aim of building a sustainable business at a scale large enough to create meaningful change in the way laying hens are raised and treated in the U.S.

      The next option is adoption. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find a way to make this work either. We have found that there is some interest locally in adopting hens, but not nearly enough for us to move several thousand hens in time for the new flock to arrive.

      Our last option is for the hens to be sold for food. Even this option is not without difficulty because laying hens have far less meat than broiler hens which are bred specifically for food. In fact, white laying hens (producers of white eggs) have so little meat that they are usually euthanized with CO2 and sent to a landfill. Fortunately, our small family farms are close enough to the NYC metro area where there is a demand for live, brown hens. When the hens leave us they are trucked to NY and NJ where they are then sold on to stores (mostly in the NYC metro area). The hens are then sold live to consumers and typically slaughtered on premises. While we wish that all of hens could live out their days on a farm, we do feel thankful that consumers are actually able to get some value from our hens at the end of their laying days and enjoy meat free from antibiotics and hormones.

      We understand that for some consumers who want eggs from hens that are never slaughtered, our eggs will not be a suitable option. We encourage these consumers to raise their own hens and provide information on our website for starting their own backyard flock. While it’s important for us to continue to move the bar on humane egg production, we also feel that it’s important to remember that over 90% of eggs consumed in the U.S. are produced in horrific caged environments. For those hens, their best day is the day when they are finally put out of their misery. Perhaps Adele Douglass, the founder of Humane Farm Animal Care, said it best, “Our hens only have one bad day.”

      We appreciate your patience with our response, and appreciate that you took the time to write us.

  8. Marc Perez says:

    I am writing to inquire as to why your farm uses plastic cartons to protect your eggs? while I appreciate everything you do to raise chickens in a great environment which produces top class eggs (delicious btw), I cannot understand why you would use so much plastic which utilizes a precious natural resource (oil). its not only a little bit of plastic that you use… it’s a double folding egg tray using very thick plastic. in my opinion, it is not enough to say that the heavy duty plastic protects the eggs better than the non-plastic cartons… and while that may be slightly true, I don’t think that the protection of one or two eggs per thousands qualifies your eggs for more protection that our environment deserves.

    I hesitate to purchase your eggs based on that reason alone. when I see so much plastic being used to protect eggs and your competition using recycled paper (cardboard, etc).. I go with the competitor who raises eggs in a similar manner. although, I prefer the taste of yours the most…. my conscience just wont let me buy yours.

    please consider changing your packaging to a more environmentally product. I look forward to seeing this change. in the meantime, I will continue to purchase your competitors (albeit less tasty) eggs and also tell others why they should avoid yours (b/c of packaging and damage to the environment that it causes)

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      Hello Marc,

      As a values-led certified B-corporation, we are committed to people and the planet in addition to profit. Plastic is often associated with negative environmental impacts, but we have chosen these cartons because they are actually better for the environment than traditional molded fiber cartons made of pulp. An independent study has shown that molded fiber cartons result in more than double the carbon footprint of our RPET cartons over their lifecycle. Our RPET egg cartons approach “carbon neutral” and generate significantly less environmental impact than comparable plastic cartons. These cartons are made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. In many parts of the country, there’s a surplus of recycled soda bottle plastic; each carton puts that surplus to good use. The cartons are made from the world’s most widely recycled plastic, so it is readily accepted in most recycling programs. When our plastic carton is recycled again, it’s less harmful to the environment than recycling pulp packaging–consuming far less energy, and water, with no waste or added chemicals.

      Also noteworthy is that the paper insert is also recyclable! They contain 10% of recycled fibers, and the paper we use comes from a North American paper mill that is FSC certified (Forest Stewardship Council).

      We’d be happy to email you a copy of a research analysis about the RPET cartons versus pulp cartons, showing the reduced environmental impact. If you’d like to drop us a line at: familyfarmteam@peteandgerrys.com we’d be happy to email that to you.

      Thank you for taking a moment to give us feedback about our packaging. I’ll make sure to pass this information along to our team as well.

      Sarah
      Family Farm Team
      Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs

  9. Dennis says:

    It seems to me that there was no need to have a pointed political inference in your explanations. Don’t you think that it would be better for your public relations, to say that the federal government denied the rescue funds, rather than to use the president’s last name as you did which suggests he did not care to help these farmers. Reading that unfortunate political reference makes it hard for me to believe that you respect our president, who I have great respect for. That was unfortunate considering I came to your site to find out where I can buy your eggs. I imagine you will remove my comment because it mentions politics. But will you step back from your own unnecessary reference for sake of customers like myself, and edit your previous statement so it does not sound like it may have intentionally slammed President Obama. I am not saying you did intend this, but it’s hard to read it another way when a business does not write non-politically when they are promotkng their image.

  10. Arlene says:

    I bought your eggs recently because I usually try to buy free range organic. However, I was surprised that the shells seemed really hard to crack. I assume that this is due to the feed but I can’t imagine how a chick could crack his way out if it takes me a good wack to just to release it’s contents. I know a sturdy shell makes for less loss due to damaged eggs but is this your “normal” egg or was this an experiment with your feed?
    Also, can organic roosters be used for pet food production rather than just culling them?

    1. Sarah Walls says:

      Hi Arlene,

      Our girls are free range so the shells do tend to be thicker than eggs from caged, commodity hens. It does have to do with the nutrients in the feed they receive as well. Also the size of the egg can play a part in the thickness. For instance, a large egg has a thicker shell than a jumbo egg. You may or may not have the carton at this time, but if you do and if you would send a message to us at familyfarmteam@peteandgerrys.com we would be glad to check into this a bit further.

      We appreciate the suggestion about roosters being used for animal food production. Since the hatcheries which supply our hens are operated by companies who own the rights to the genetics of their chickens, it would be up to the hatcheries discretion to implement this. We would be happy to suggest this to them, but ultimately it is their decision.

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