Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Or the farmer or the consumer or the corporation?
Roughly in reverse order, a person might surmise after hearing news that a flock of 61,000 birds near Albany, Minn., and perhaps other flocks on other farms, was gassed to death recently when the eggs produced were no longer needed. This at a time when eggs have grown scarce and expensive at grocery stores because of consumer stockpiling during the coronavirus crisis.
The gassing was ordered and executed by Daybreak Foods, the Wisconsin-based firm that owned the chickens. The farming couple who had been under contract to maintain the flock until fall, Kerry and Barb Mergen, now won’t receive the $675 in income that the eggs brought in daily, though they still grow corn and soybeans.
So, yes, a person might surmise that corporate interests came first. But that would be an oversimplification.
The eggs had been destined mostly for a Cargill plant in Big Lake, Minn., that turned them into a liquid egg product used by food service companies. That plant was idled last week after food service demand shifted. Cargill noted in a statement that the demand has not dried up entirely, and that it and its egg suppliers “are working diligently to rebalance supply to match these consumer and customer shifts.”
A question on many minds is why the egg production couldn’t have been adapted quickly to serve the retail market. But converting a plant that handles 800 million eggs a year is not simple. And for their part, the Mergens told the Star Tribune that they don’t have the equipment to grade eggs for retail and that there are financial obstacles to building their own flock and feeding it.
The euthanized chickens won’t go utterly to waste — they were to be rendered into dog food. That or a similar repurposing was likely to be their eventual fate anyway. And that’s the part that gets to those who argue for humane farming practices and against mass production.
It’s true that the food system isn’t perfect and certainly isn’t delicate, but it’s also true that in normal times it feeds a nation.