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Egg Recall Drives Worried Customers to Farmers Markets

Small egg farms across the U.S. report selling out as recall grows

by JoNel Aleccia

Jackie Dearing of Bloomington, Ill., sold all of her 50 dozen eggs at the local farmers market on Saturday, including carton after carton to new customers worried about a large and growing salmonella scare linked to millions of grocery store eggs.

"Almost everybody who came to our booth mentioned it," said Dearing, whose family runs Dearing Country Farms, a small-scale meat and poultry business. "Anytime something like this happens, people think a lot more about where their food comes from."

As a recall of more than 550 million eggs tied to two industrial manufacturers widens , small egg farmers across the United States are echoing Dearing's experience. Sales of eggs at farmers markets, co-operatives and roadside stands reportedly spiked over the weekend as news of the outbreak linked to at least 1,300 illnesses reached shoppers.

"I think this is the consumer's way of saying, ‘Until this blows over, I'll get my eggs from another source,'" said Susan S. Joy, general manager of the Nebraska Poultry Industries, an agency based in Lincoln, Neb., that represents all branches of the turkey and egg industry including both small growers and large farms.

At a farmer's market in Redmond, Wash., Sue Martinell of Sky Valley Family Farm sold out of 80 dozen chicken eggs on Saturday, leaving only duck eggs to buy.

Customers lined up for eggs at stalls at the Inner Sunset Farmers Market in San Francisco from the time the market opened until they sold out, said Elizabeth Howe, regional manager of the Pacific Coast Farmer's Market Association.

"People are realizing that it's not the safest decision to buy eggs shipped from huge factory farms in the Midwest, where traceability and accountability is limited," she said. "At the farmers' market, you can shake the hand of the farmer who collected your egg that morning and I think that is much more reassuring."

Across the country, in Arlington, Minn., customers at Bar-5-Meat and Poultry wiped out a supply of 165 dozen eggs by 11 a.m., said owner John Wemeier.

"Instead of buying one dozen eggs they were buying two dozen to three dozen," he said. "It looked to me like they were kind of stocking up."

It's a trend that could well increase as federal officials struggle to identify the source and scope of the massive recall. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on Monday said that it could take weeks or months to complete investigations now centering on two Iowa farms, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. The firms share suppliers of chickens and feed as well as ties to an Iowa business with a history of violations.

In the meantime, mom-and-pop producers could step in, said Karen Blakeslee, a food scientist with the Kansas State University Research and Extension Service.

"This is making consumers more leery of what's happening with the big manufacturers," Blakeslee said. "I think the small farmers are really going to pick up business."

At least one official with the egg industry cautioned consumers to put the issue in perspective. Krista Eberle, director of food safety programs for the Egg Safety Center and the United Egg Producers, said that the recall of 550 million eggs affects only a fraction of the 80 billion eggs produced in the U.S. each year.

"It may seem like a lot of eggs, but it's actually less than 1 percent," said Eberle, noting that non-recalled eggs are safe to eat.

That argument might not sit well with shoppers like those who flocked to buy eggs at the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wis., said Lyn Olson, director of the store's cooperative services.

"Over and over I heard, ‘Thank God I already buy organic.'"

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