Good eggs: California farmers focus on safe, affordable food
Mar./Apr. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Steve Adler, Photos by Scott Monaco
Siblings Eric Benson and Jill Benson follow in their grandfather's footsteps in the San Joaquin Valley.
James Stewart West’s grandchildren, Eric Benson and Jill Benson, continue the family farming tradition at their Modesto-based company, which provides fresh eggs to consumers throughout Northern California.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
“The chicken came first … definitely,” according to Eric Benson, president and CEO of family-owned JS West and Co., a Central California egg farmer.
Benson speaks from experience. He and his sister, Jill Benson, JS West’s vice president, have deep roots in California agriculture. JS West celebrated its centennial in 2009. It was 100 years ago that their grandfather, James Stewart West, moved to Modesto in the northern San Joaquin Valley and started a new business selling grain and coal. The company has since expanded in many directions, including a poultry operation that produces a million eggs a day.
Things have changed a great deal since JS West’s horse-drawn wagon rumbled down the streets of Modesto delivering coal. For one thing, there were many more farmers back then. Jill Benson points out that nowadays just 1 percent of this country’s population produces all the food for everyone else, including consumer families around the world.
She also notes that most people do not know that the vast majority of farms in the United States are owned by families or individuals, not by huge corporations as some media reports would have one believe.
“Some 22 million people are employed in farming or related businesses, so that is a lot of people depending on farming for feeding their families,” Jill Benson said. “Farmers are under siege by animal rights groups, environmental groups and the media who don’t tell the whole story.
“As farmers we really take our jobs seriously. Consumers want and deserve economical, safe, locally produced and nutritious food and that is what we strive to bring them. We also work to retain consumer choice. We don’t feel society is ready to have the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of what they eat dictated to them by activist groups.”
Eric Benson added, “We talked with some urban consumers, especially younger ones, who really don’t have a good idea yet about food production. They’ll say that eggs come from the back of the store rather than from a chicken. To me, that is one of the challenges in society today.”
JS West cares for its hens from the time they arrive as chicks.
Chicks arrive at the farm soon after hatching and at about 17 weeks old take their place as laying hens.
“We get the chickens from a hatching facility when they are one day old,” Eric Benson said. “We raise them in separate housing until they are about 17 weeks old. Then we move them into laying houses where they lay eggs for about two years. During that two-year time we keep them safe and healthy.”
Laying hens produce one egg a day—usually around 9 or 10 in the morning. The eggs roll down and go onto a conveyor belt to the processing room where they are washed, scrubbed and inspected. The process is computerized so that cracks are easily detected. Eggs that fail the test are removed.
Each egg is then weighed and packaged. The actual size of an egg—small, medium, large, jumbo—is determined by its weight, not its physical appearance. Once they are packaged, the eggs are refrigerated until they are trucked to a retail store or food service customer such as a restaurant or hospital. Shipment usually occurs that night or the next morning.
“It is very possible that the egg that you buy in the store today could have been laid yesterday,” Eric Benson said.
Eggs are “candled” as part of the inspection process to ensure that consumers get only the highest-quality eggs.
Food safety is a very high priority at commercial egg operations like JS West.
“From a practical standpoint, our flocks are inspected and monitored by the USDA and a number of other groups to make sure we have proper protocols in place and in our processing plants,” Eric Benson said. “It is a very rigorous process and we make sure we protect the eggs and the birds from any kind of disease or contamination.”
He notes that food safety necessitates a partnership between farmers and consumers. Commercial producers follow scientifically developed methods to ensure that eggs leaving their facilities are of the highest quality. Once the eggs leave the store, the consumer part of the partnership kicks in.
A sophisticated computer program at JS West follows the progress of every egg, from the hen to the carton.
“It is important that consumers take proper precautions in their kitchens and that they handle and use eggs in a smart way as well,” he said. “In many cases of food illness, we find that it wasn’t the egg itself; it was the way it was handled after it was brought home from the store.”
Educating consumers about modern egg production has always been important to the Bensons, and it has become even more so following the approval of Proposition 2 by California voters in 2008. The proposition, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States and other like groups, targeted animal agriculture operations with a particular focus on egg layers.
Eggs that have been washed, scrubbed and inspected make their way along a conveyor belt to be placed in cartons, where they are available in stores as soon as the next day.
One of the provisions of Prop. 2 relates to housing units for laying hens. Although the proposition won’t take effect for four more years, JS West has already begun the conversion with the phasing in of state-of-the-art housing units on one of its ranches. The new housing units are similar to ones currently being used in Europe.
Debbie Murdock, executive director of the Association of California Egg Farmers, points out that the goal of Prop. 2—the humane treatment of egg-laying hens—is a mantra to which California egg farmers have long subscribed.
“They already comply with the most stringent animal protection and egg safety standards in the country. And they want to work collaboratively to ensure the continued production of fresh and affordable eggs that meet the food safety and animal care standards that customers expect,” Murdock said.
Other California egg farmers are also moving forward by making a good-faith effort to provide their hens with housing units that comply with the provisions of Prop. 2.
The focus of Prop. 2 is directed toward the well-being of chickens, something that is already a very high priority at JS West.
Eric Benson, Jill Benson and Mike West, all grandchildren of founder James Stewart West, look over plans for their new state-of-the-art egg-laying facility that is currently under construction.
“We know through scientific research and experience that hens that are housed and kept indoors are protected, they are healthy and as a result they produce a very clean egg,” Jill Benson said.
Some surprising health benefits
Eating an egg a day is a good way to go.
According to the American Egg Board, eggs are a naturally nutrient-dense food, which means they have a high proportion of nutrients to calories. One large egg has 70 calories and provides 13 essential nutrients in varying amounts.
One egg provides 6 grams of protein, or 12 percent of the Recommended Daily Value. Eggs provide the highest quality protein found in any food because they contain all of the essential amino acids the human body needs. While many people think the egg white has all the protein, the yolk actually provides nearly half of it.
The protein in an egg has other benefits, too. For one thing, it helps you feel fuller for a longer period of time, so you won’t be snacking between meals. That egg also helps active adults build muscle strength and helps prevent muscle loss in older adults.
Eggs provide another important health benefit through the manufacture of vaccines used to protect people from influenza. These vaccines are grown in fertilized chicken eggs when manufacturers inject a small amount of the virus into eggs, which allows the virus to reproduce. According to Harvard University, it takes six months to manufacture, safety test and package the vaccine doses needed annually for seasonal flu prevention. For tips on the safe handling of eggs, go to the American Egg Board’s Web site.
Steve Adler is a reporter for California Country. He can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.