The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By Jo Tsai
A farm fresh fried egg is a beautiful thing. Featured on Neapolitan thin-crust pizzas, juicy high-stacked burgers, and now, here before me, this vivid orange crown jewel is served over a perfectly braised pork belly and gleaming steamed rice. I have the recent culinary trend of “would you like an egg with that?” to thank for this extra pop of color, protein, and pure delectable ooze.
Looking at this gem makes me think of the thousands of eggs I have used to make countless omelettes and custards in my culinary career. In culinary school, “eggs” had their own section in food purveyance; in nutrition class, eggs we learned they are a fantastic source of protein; and in safe handling and practices for food, eggs should be cooked until a temperature of 160 degrees. But somehow, despite all this training eggs are seared into my mind by way of the film Food, Inc where I learned about the abhorrent living conditions of laying chickens.
For the everyday consumer, as long as the hens laying the eggs have not been pumped with antibiotics or the eggs themselves have not been in the news for being recalled, any sort of eggs suffice. But swirling around egg production in the United States is a whole industry built around regulations and terms only experts understand.
“Cage-free” simply suggests that the hens are “free of cages.” That is all. Cage free eggs come from hens that are not kept in cages, but that is as far as regulations go in terms of the living conditions of these hens. For example, picture a coop so filled you cannot see the ground underneath the hens. They no longer even have the capability to use their legs because there is no room for them to walk. On top of that, there is no sunlight and fresh air. So yes, cage free indeed, but not by any means livable. Then there is “free range.” It simply means these hens have access to the outdoors. “Access” remains unregulated, and it has been observed that such hens in reality have very limited passage to and time on these fabled ranges. Along with a handful of other combination of words such as “farm fresh,” “free to fly,” and “wild hen,” there are a number of terms to skim through on the egg carton while you pick from a huge array of eggs.
The farms that produce these eggs add to the ambiguity. Their websites greet consumers with lovely pictures of “fresh” eggs, followed by a very comprehensive listing of the nutritional content of their product. Below are the words “safe environments” or “state of the art.” But like the nondescript definitions of “cage free” and “free range,” farms do just as well in creating virtual verbal fluff as they do in real life.
As horrifying as we may find our run-of-the-mill grocery eggs, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or, on the other end of the egg spectrum. Emerging from the culture of farmer’s markets, local foods, and CSAs, “pastured” hens are become the way of our food. Defined as birds “raised outdoors with grass and a natural diet” hens are allowed to “return to their roots” and go about as hens do. This alternative allows the diets of these hens to be varied and therefore yields eggs that in turn reflect the rich nutrients in these diets. “You are what you eat” really does not stop with us humans and this philosophy is at the root of the definition of sustainable.
“To be nourished, to be sustained” are the lessons we can learn from the farms that are informed on this philosophy and methods. Farms such as Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, California or Tara Firma Farms in Marin, California stress the importance of knowing where your food comes from, and knowing what you put in your body. In Vacaville, Soul Food farms allow their hens a natural lifestyle so that their hens produce the freshest egg possible. That is why, when you look at the yolks from these eggs, because of the natural plant pigments beta carotene and xanthophylls in the hens’ diets, they are brilliant orange compared to the pale yellow yolks of grocery store eggs.
The egg industry falls along a huge spectrum: on one end is an industry that produces eggs that hardly meet the mark of being truly “sustainable” in nutrition as well as an industry itself. On the other end are the farms whose mission is to nourish their customers. At the heart of the idea of sustainability is food. And regardless of which came first, the chicken or the egg, it must all start somewhere. We just hope that the “somewhere” treats our food with the same respect we treat ourselves.
[Image © 2011 Food Gal Carolyn Jung, "Bowled Over by Hawker's Fare in Oakland"]
Jo Tsai has a culinary arts degree and is currently a graduate student in the Design Strategy MBA program at California College of the Arts. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.