Billion-dollar question: What is an Egg?

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The U.S. is confronting a host of difficult questions these days, and they are not limited to timeless, philosophical ones such as ‘what is truth’. If you thought ‘chicken or egg’ was a tricky question, try answering this elementary one — what is an egg? Or, what is milk?

These are questions that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been petitioned to define. The underlying reasons that triggered these questions are not easy to resolve and billions of dollars of trade ride on them. American bakery chain Panera Bread that took the egg question to FDA this week has been trying to place itself as the healthier alternative to other fast food giants.

Panera thinks it is unfair competition when it uses only freshly cracked eggs or egg whites with no additives for its egg sandwiches while some other chains use processed and frozen egg patties that contain soybean oil, water, corn starch, xanthan gum, citric acid and more to make what they call “egg” sandwiches or muffins. Decades-old FDA rules say “no regulation shall be promulgated” to define “the food commonly known as eggs”. Panera argues that processed eggs came into the market later, and a legal definition is necessary. Panera says consumers who order an egg sandwich do not know that what they get is a processed egg product, frozen and heated, often containing five ingredients.

 Commercial free speech

Panera has a long way to go before settling the question, but American dairy farmers are fighting a similar battle — they want to define what is milk. American supermarkets stock almond milk, soy milk, etc. and dairy farmers say these products cannot be labelled as milk. A pending piece of legislation, the DAIRY PRIDE Act, is the acronym for ‘Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act’.

A similar campaign is on in Australia also, while in Canada, the law is unambiguous about what milk is —“the normal lacteal secretion, free from colostrum, obtained from the mammary gland of an animal”. The dairy lobby in the U.S. says extracts from almond and soy can only be called juice. Supporters of almond ‘milk’ and soy ‘milk’ say it’s commercial free speech, and any government move to legally define milk will be an infringement upon free speech, and a regulatory overreach.

American consumers are said to be very demanding but their knowledge of what they eat is pretty limited, various surveys have shown. Last year, a survey by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy found that around 7% of all American adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows — that is more than 16.4 million people.

Industrial food production in the country has removed the consumers far away from the farms. Only 2% of the country’s population lives in a farm, and the average plate of food may have travelled up to 1,500 miles, through factories and on trucks, from farms. Another never-ending labelling battle in America is what must be called genetically modified and what can be called organic.

Panera reportedly spent 18 months, perfecting a method to freshly cook an egg in a replicable fashion across its outlets. The company has challenged fast food companies on health and nutrition questions earlier too. The FDA is not in a hurry to define egg, but the noise over the question is good marketing tactic for Panera. The chain was sold last year for $7.5 billion. It has been the best-performing restaurant stock of the past 20 years, as it grew over 8,000%.

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Mediabites Editorial – Vargese K. George

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