The American Egg Board (AEB) found a new way to promote its product—letting consumers know when products are “Made With Real Eggs.”
According to Food Business News, the checkoff marketing agency recently introduced “real egg certification seals” for egg producers, food manufacturers, and food service retail outlets on packaged goods and fresh packaged food.
Eggs must be produced and processed in the U.S. for brands to use the label. Eggs must also come only from U.S. “produced” hens. Additionally, no other products, such as “protein from vegetable oil and legumes” to replace the function of an egg. It also means that the product couldn’t include eggs and a plant-based substitute made like the JUST Egg, which happens to be made from legume-based protein.
The AEB, a check-off marketing agency, has a history of promoting studies that downplay cholesterol content. In recent years, it’s taken shots at vegan competitors. Not only that, the AEB promotes a product that has a negative impact on the planet and on animals. Is the board corrupt?
What Is the American Egg Board?
Formed in 1973, the AEB uses federal funds from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to research and promote eggs. Three years later it launched “The Incredible, Edible Egg”—its signature campaign created by the advertising agency Campbell Mithun.
The now-defunct Minneapolis-based agency recorded multiple radio and television commercials for the AEB. A 1978 commercial opens with sunny-side-up eggs sizzling on a griddle as an alto voice sings “They’re as fresh as the breeze…”
A smiling man in a taupe suit jacket and green sweater vest tells the viewer that “Eggs come to you fresh every day.” He adds, “Eggs are natural and economical. So, keep enough on hand!”
“High in protein…and only 80 calories each,” he says while setting down a soft-boiled egg. “Eggs are a natural wonder,” he continues, listing eggs’ various uses.
In August 2017, the AEB hired the agency Energy BBDO to create a new campaign. Sofia Therios, the vice president of marketing for the AEB told Fast Company “As we’re modernizing for today’s consumer, what’s the most relevant way to speak with the consumer about the product?”
The series included, a series of irony-laced digital ads and images contrasting characters such as a nun, a stoner (Picture the writers’ room: “The kids like cannabis, right?”), and Santa Claus with their favorite way to cook an egg
The Campaign to Downplay Cholesterol
Consumer preferences are in constant fluctuation. Low-sugar was popular in the 1990s. Today, it’s “clean” label products and transparency. Following the 1980s obsession with low-fat diets, one AEB commercial declared “1989 government research” revealed that eggs contain 22 percent less cholesterol “than we thought.”
Along with commercials, the AEB also created the Egg Nutrition Center (ENC), the “science and nutrition education division” of the AEB. It conducts research focused on eggs—like the “government research” cited in the 1995 commercial.
In the digital age, the AEB has broadened its horizons with a website (IncredibleEgg.org), Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and a YouTube channel. New studies are also conducted—in 2011, a “government study” found that eggs are 14 percent lower in cholesterol and 64 percent higher in vitamin D than previously thought.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), prior to the 1970s, the egg industry played no role in cholesterol research. The AEB’s hand in cholesterol studies went from 0 percent in the 1950s to 60 percent by 2019.
In reality, more than 85 percent of the studies found that eggs are a negative effect on blood cholesterol levels. But, industry-backed studies were more likely to downplay the effects.
A 2019 JAMA study found that eating small amounts of eggs daily raises cholesterol levels as well as the risk for heart disease and premature death. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology that same year warned that eating eggs is bad for those with heart disease. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad cholesterol”), which contributes to plaque buildup and increases the risk of heart attack, heart disease, and stroke.
There is a trend of dominant industries trying to minimize the adverse health effects of certain foods. In the 1960s, the sugar industry paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of $50,000 today to downplay the connection between sugar and heart disease. Instead, it shifted the blame to fat. In 2015, the New York Times revealed that Coca Cola, the world’s largest soft drink producer, worked with top scientists to publish studies blaming a lack of exercise, not high consumption of processed sugar, to type-2 diabetes.
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said these occurrences are “why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.”
Eggs and the Climate Crisis
As well as heart health, the egg industry has a negative effect on the planet. Research from the University of Oviedo in Spain found that intensive poultry farming—factory farming—found that feed production has the biggest impact. The carbon footprint of a dozen eggs is “similar to” the value of other animal foods, including milk. And, dairy and beef cattle are responsible for the majority of animal agriculture’s 14.5 percent contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, poultry production results in “high water usage and consequentially high levels of wastewater generation.” Wastewater carries the extra risk of leaching nitrates and possible pathogens in poultry feces, which can go on to contaminate groundwater.
Cereal grown for animal feed accounts for 35 percent of global feed production. The poultry sector uses 28 percent of cereal feed and 75 percent of the soybean meal used by the livestock sector.
Dairy and eggs have a similar reputation, viewed as more ethical than meat. But, egg-laying hens live with little to no protection. The federal Humane Slaughter Act of 1978, which requires farm animals to be stunned into unconsciousness before being killed, does not apply to chickens, turkeys, and other birds even though they feel pain.
California has stronger animal protection laws. Proposition 12, the Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act, went into effect at the start of the year.
At hatcheries for egg-laying hens, it’s a common practice for chicks to have the tip of their beak without anesthesia—and it’s perfectly legal. Because male chicks cannot lay eggs, they are treated as a useless byproduct and ground up alive in a machine called a macerator. The U.S. kills 260 million chicks this way each year.
Switzerland banned this practice last September. But, the move was symbolic: in Central Europe, male chicks are usually gassed with CO2. The country is exploring other options, such as raising male chicks for meat.
In Germany, a company called SELEGGT has developed technology that determines the chicks’ sex before they hatch. The method could theoretically save 45 million chicks a year. But, this doesn’t spare hens. Hens have their reproductive systems exploited to produce eggs for profit. According to the Humane Society, 280 million hens laid 76.8 billion eggs in 2007. Today’s commercially-bred hens have been bred to lay around 250 eggs a year. At the start of the 20th century, hens laid around 100 a year. Their ancestor, the jungle fowl, laid only around 10 eggs a year.
Ninety-five percent of egg-laying hens are raised in battery cages—wire cages that house up to ten birds. American Egg Producers recommends 67 to 86 in2 per bird. But, the size space allowed for each hen deprives them of natural behaviors, such as stretching, preening, turning, and flapping their wings. Hens also suffer from feather loss, bruises, and abrasions in battery cages.
Cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised gives hens more spatial freedom. Each term allows or restricts the hens in different ways. Cage-free hens need space to perch and nest, but they have no outdoor access. Free-range and pasture-raised hens have outdoor access for at least six hours a day. No matter what the label, hens are still subjected to debeaking and having their bodies used. Outside of factory farms, hens can live for up two ten years. But within the egg industry, they are killed after about two years.
The egg industry harms humans, too. Trillium Farms in Ohio, one of the country’s largest egg producers, was the subject of a 2014 labor trafficking case covered in the 2018 FRONTLINE documentary “Trafficked in America.” The investigation uncovered a criminal network that had exploited undocumented minors. Trillium Farms had allegedly promised ten Guatemalan teens who had paid $15,000 to come to the U.S. in search of work.
According to PBS, the teens were “forced to live and work in virtual slavery to pay off their debts.” As of September 2018, four defendants have pled guilty in the labor trafficking scheme.
“This defendant profited off the desperation of children and their parents and other relatives,” said U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman for the Northern District of Ohio. “He knew some of the workers he delivered to Trillium Farms were underage, in the country illegally and were threatened or coerced. We will continue to work to eliminate human trafficking in all its forms.”
The Fight Against Future Food-Tech
The AEB’s new label highlights that its eggs are “real,” calling to the 75 percent of consumers who do not trust food labels. Headlines question the healthfulness around “fake meat.”
Egg substitutes do contain more ingredients than just an egg. The Follow Your Heart contains nine. The mung bean-based JUST Egg contains 15 (to be fair, it contains “less than two percent” of the majority of them). The Neat Egg has just two ingredients: chia seeds and garbanzo beans.
Food technology is bringing the market closer to arguably better consumer choices. A vegan egg doesn’t exploit chickens’ bodies. The mung-bean based JUST Egg uses 98 percent less water, 86 percent less land, and a 93 percent smaller carbon footprint. CEO and co-founder Josh Tetrick hopes to make the JUST Egg’s price—which costs around $9—comparable with the real thing. It acquired a 30,000-square-foot protein processing facility last December to scale up production.
The Fight Against Alternatives
The AEB recognizes the threat of plant-based eggs. Emails acquired through the Freedom of Information act revealed shady discussions. The board played with the idea of getting FDA rules for product names altered. They felt the product name “Just Egg” misleads the public into believing that it’s literally made with just egg. They asked a consultant to convince Whole Foods to drop Just Mayo. Another email joked about putting a hit on the JUST CEO.
AEB president Joanne Ivy said in 2015 that “we remain extremely confident that AEB has not broken any laws.”
The board’s job is to promote eggs, not conspire to take down competitors. It also not allowed to influence government regulators like the FDA. Ivy retired shortly after the scandal emerged.
Unilever, the global food company that owns Hellmann’s, filed a lawsuit against JUST (called Hampton Creek at the time) in 2014. Unilever alleged that Just Mayo couldn’t be called “mayonnaise” because it’s egg-free. The company dropped the lawsuit in late 2014. Not long after that, it launched Hellmann’s Carefully Crafted Sandwich Spread. Vegan mayonnaise (but don’t call it that!).
But, food tech will continue to move forward. Boston-based biotechnology startup Motif FoodWorks developing plant-based proteins identical to their animal-based counterparts using microbial fermentation.
It is currently working on proteins that could replace meat, dairy, and eggs. The company conducts acceptability research to better predict how consumers will react to microbial fermentation-made ingredients on food labels. San Francisco-based startup Clara Foods making similar strides in food technology.
Motif FoodWorks Chief commercial officer Michele Fite told FoodNavigator-USA that “consumers are receptive to science and technology” because their value are so strong. But, she said that food technology needs to “come together as an industry” to make its messaging—sustainability, health, animal welfare—clear to “serve the technology and our nascent industry.“