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August 2013
Egg-xactly What the Doctor Ordered
By Carol Gifford

     Eggs are the main source of protein for many people in the world and an important source of protein for U.S. consumers. Producing eggs is a multi-million dollar agribusiness sector, and Simpson’s Eggs in Monroe, the third largest egg producer in North Carolina, is working to meet the demand.

     “Eggs laid today will be packaged and in the stores by tomorrow,” says Alex Simpson, vice president and general manager of Simpson’s Eggs.

     The production of fresh, safe eggs is a process that has evolved to include several steps in a short period of time, all designed to meet customer demand and satisfy government and industry regulators. Simpson’s Eggs, a family business spanning generations, bears testament to just how much the business of egg production has changed over the years.

 

Spanning Generations

     “We are a family-run business,” says Simpson. “My great-grandfather, Z.K., started the egg business in 1925 in his backyard. He would drive his Model-T Ford to Charlotte and sell eggs door to door. After returning from WWII, my grandfather, Leroy, started his own flock and began to expand the business.”

     Then, the reins were passed to Simpson’s father Richard until his untimely death in a car accident early this year, and now they have passed to Alex, who previously served as production manager. Simpson holds degrees in agriculture and business from N.C. State University.

     “While my grandfather satisfied the needs of his customers, my father built this company to what it is today,” attests Simpson.

     “In the 1950s, there were about 700 egg producers in North Carolina,” describes Simpson. “Today, that number has been consolidated to four main players who produce 99 percent of the eggs.”

     Simpson oversees 15 houses totalling 1.2 million laying hens that produce about 900,000 eggs a day. The Simpson’s Eggs operation, the third largest egg producer in North Carolina, provides eggs to customers in the region, as well as surrounding states and internationally.

     “The farm still operates on about 110 acres, the same amount of acreage my great-grandfather started with on his farm,” says Simpson. “It’s hard to believe we can produce that much product in so small an area.”

     Eggs are big business because they are the main source of protein for most people, especially those who live in larger countries like India and China.

     “In the U.S., the main protein source for most people is meat,” Simpson explains, “but in other countries the main protein source is eggs. Eggs are the cheapest source of protein, and account for 30 percent of the world’s protein.”

     According to nutritionists, one egg provides 10 to 13 percent of the daily reference value for protein or as much as one ounce of lean meat, fish or poultry, and egg protein is the highest quality food protein, second only to mother’s milk for human nutrition.

 

Production Life Cycle

     “We focus on quality, but you also have to have quantity to stay in the egg business,” adds Simpson.

      In addition to the laying hens, Simpson’s Eggs includes about 320,000 pullets, or chicks, that are up to 16 weeks old, maturing to get ready to lay eggs. Simpson’s uses Hy-Line birds, receiving them when they are about a day old, and feeding them until they are ready to begin laying eggs themselves at 16 to 17 weeks old.

      The peak egg production time for hens is between 20 and 26 weeks, when they lay about an egg a day, Simpson says. They continue to lay eggs for about 70 weeks. At about 90 weeks, when they are about 70 percent efficient, they leave the farm to become processed into institutional-type food, used for feeding animals.

     “Just like dairy cows are bred for milk production, we breed hens to lay eggs,” explains Simpson.

     The company produces both white and brown eggs—the different color eggs come from different color chickens—although there are many fewer brown eggs, based on customer demand.

     “Brown and white eggs are exactly the same nutritionally,” affirms Jake Simmons, sales manager and Simpson’s brother-in-law. “Some people prefer brown eggs, but it’s a myth that there’s any difference in nutritional value or taste. It’s all in what they are used to. Lots of people grew up with chickens in their backyards that laid brown eggs.”

     “The taste of the eggs is related to the feed that hens eat,” offers Simmons. “Our feed is specially formulated by a nutritionist to produce the right amount of protein for our birds. We use about 275,000 pounds of feed each day for the flock, or about 40 loads each week. The amount of feed each hen eats also helps determine the size of the eggs.”

     In the marketplace, consumers mainly want to buy large or extra-large eggs, so most of the egg production is focused on that size.

     “Overall the flavor of eggs, even organic eggs, is pretty much the same. I tell people to buy the cheapest eggs you can,” says Simpson. “They all taste good and they’re all safe.”

 

Delivering Quality Eggs

     Simmons, who handles customer clients, started with Simpson’s Eggs in 2002 when he was recruited by Richard Simpson.

     “I’m from hog country, the eastern part of the state,” says Simmons. “I’m a big-time sports fan and I thought I would go into sportswriting, like my father, who was a journalist. Richard, who was then running the production business and handling all the sales, wanted a sales manager.

     “There’s no one on Earth that I respected more, so I took the job. Richard meant a lot to me. This is a family operation and we’re hands-on. If something breaks down, Alex or I go and handle it. It doesn’t matter what time it is.”

     Simpson’s Eggs packs and ships eggs according to their customer requirements. Egg prices are volatile and vary along with demand throughout the year.

     “The Southeast has the highest-priced eggs in the country,” says Simpson, “while the Midwest, which has the largest egg producers in the country, has the lowest priced eggs. Still, the price is consistently low, considering the increase in price, over time, for other staples such as milk and bread. Eggs today cost about .90 to $1.70 a dozen, depending on the size and time of year.”

     “Egg prices can double and then halve again in just three weeks,” he continues, resulting in egg producers getting stuck with excess product. “If we have some surplus product, we go to our secondary markets. We call and bid on prices with industry traders who ship to other countries such as Hong Kong, Mexico, Germany, Iraq, and China.”

     Some of Simpson’s Eggs big customers include Food Lion, Sam’s Club, Compare Foods and Aldi. Depending on the customer requirement, eggs are packaged and delivered to individual stores or warehouses for distribution.

     Customers can also request that eggs be packed in plastic foam or pulp (cardboard) cartons. Packaging costs are about 8.5 cents per foam cartons, says Simmons, and more customers request the foam cartons because eggs draw odors and foam does a better job of protecting them.

 

Safe Quality Eggs

     Simpson’s Eggs follow Safe Quality Food (SQF) standards, a global food safety and quality certification and management system with independent certification checks.

     Safety is a top priority when it comes to eggs, and both the FDA and the USDA inspect and certify eggs in addition to regular checks of the flocks and annual audits.

     Consumers have concerns about salmonella or bacterial infections, but Simpson says that statistically the chances of contracting salmonella from eggs is very low because of regulations in place.

     Simpson’s Eggs complies with all safety inspections and other quality standards and industry groups, including the United Egg Producers Board science-based animal welfare guidelines (UEP Certified), whose standards are endorsed by the Food Marketing Institute and the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

     Monitoring continues with the henhouses. Simpson’s Eggs farm has 15 houses of white hen layers, two houses of brown hen layers, and four pullet houses where young chicks are raised to be layers. Hens are kept in cages, eight levels to the ceiling, where waste can be separated from the hen and the egg. The high-rise layer houses developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a way to improve egg safety and environmental issues. Air quality is much improved.

     The houses are environmentally controlled to keep the temperature at 72 degrees. By using cool cells and a tunnel ventilator, air and water temperatures can be lowered by 20 degrees. In the winter, the birds naturally build up heat and keep the inside temperature warm.

     “I can control the temperatures from my computer in my office and from my cell phone,” declares Simpson, although he says that doesn’t stop him from worrying about his hens.

     “If there’s a thunderstorm and a lot of lightning, I’ll leave my house to come check on the henhouses. I want to make sure the systems are working and that the alternate generator is running,” Simpson says. “My wife says I go to take care of the hens instead of taking care of my family.”

 

Egg Production Technology

     While some vocal critics suggest that free-range chickens is a better way to raise eggs, Simpson is convinced of the merits of hens producing eggs safely in cages.

     “As opposed to having them cage-free,” says Simpson, “statistics show that hens producing eggs in the modern cage system use 15 to 25 percent less feed per egg, and have a smaller carbon footprint.

     “We believe we’re doing it right. Hens need to be kept away from the manure that can contaminate the eggs, and from the eggs that could be broken.

     “We take better care of our birds by following the certified standards, making sure the hens have enough space, a continual supply of fresh water, and are fed six times a day.”

     Currently U.S. egg farmers supply American consumers with 76 billion eggs each year, requiring an efficient production method. Simpson points out that Europe’s recent move to cage-free egg production resulted in a net shortage of eggs, forcing Europe to become the biggest importer of eggs from China (the world’s largest producer) and the U.S.

     At Simpson’s Eggs farm, an egg conveyer system transports eggs directly from the henhouses to a warehouse where they are washed and inspected for quality.

     “This technology uses six cameras to take pictures of all angles of the eggs as they move on a conveyer belt to go through two washings,” describes Simpson. “The cameras, almost like an ultrasound, are looking at the eggs to ‘see’ spots that could be cracks or evidence of leaks. Eggs that have problems are dumped off the conveyer belt to be added to the leaks in barrel.

     “The eggs then move across a scale that weighs them and sorts them by size. Then they are packed in egg cartons according to their size. If everything works correctly, no hand touches the egg until the customer buys it in the grocery store.”

 

Simpson’s Eggs-tended “Family”

     Simpson’s Eggs has 48 employees who help with the production process.

     “We’ve got people who’ve been with us for 30 years and different generations of the same family,” says Simpson. “We employ a lot of Hispanic workers and they give me all they’ve got. They get harassed and checked to see if they are legal, and they are. We use E-verify for all our employees. These guys work hard and I consider them part of our family.”

     Simpson’s father, Richard, was a leader in the industry, serving as past chairman of the American Egg Board. Through his role in the industry, Richard was invited to the White House to meet President George W. Bush in 2002. He was accompanied by his son Alex as well as the rest of the family. They presented the First Family with a specially designed Easter egg.

     Following in his father’s footsteps, Simpson is also an industry leader, serving as a board member of N.C. Egg Association, United Egg Producers, and American Egg Board. Simpson’s Eggs is also a member or affiliated with the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture, the Egg Nutrition Center, and the Egg Safety Center.

     The family-run business continues to rely on input from the family.

     Simpson’s 88-year-old grandfather, Leroy who is president of the company, visits the farm each day to check out the production process and step in the warehouse to help out, as needed. Simpson’s 86-year-old grandmother, Nell, secretary of the company, prepares a daily handwritten ledger, “double-checking the computer figures,” says Simpson.

     “Our worries have all changed since my father Richard passed,” said Simpson. “Everybody steps up, everybody moves on.”

 

Photo by Fenix Fotography www.fenixfoto.com

 

 

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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