In keeping with the post-Thanksgiving spirit, a saga of poultry and politics wings down from Capitol Hill.
The United Egg Producers (UEP) are as mad as wet hens. Mike Maynard, who is seen as a fox in the pullet shed, is caught in a crack that has cost him a nest egg of more than $100,000. And Congress so far has refused to chicken out.
Enough, lest the story catch in the reader's craw and tongues start clucking. But first the background.
Earlier this year, the House Agriculture Committee, acting at the behest of the UEP, put language in its farm bill that would have banned the use of an egg-breaking machine that Maynard makes in Tustin, Calif.
Maynard's Egg King, which separates egg shell and membrane from white and yolk by centrifugal force, is increasingly popular in restaurants and bakeries that use lots of fresh eggs. About 800 of the machines are in use and getting rave reviews as labor-saving devices.
But the Egg King is direct, and potentially serious, competition for the billion-dollar egg-breaking industry -- which sells liquid, frozen and powdered eggs to food processors, bakeries and eateries. The Egg King also poaches on the egg-producing industry that provides eggs for the egg-breaking industry, which in some cases are one and the same.
UEP's amendment was sponsored by Rep. Lindsay Thomas (D-Ga.), who did not touch on the economics of it. He argued that the Egg King was an awesome threat to public health because of its potential for transmitting salmonella -- although there was no evidence that it had done so.
The Egg King amendment was hatched without hearings or discussion of the pros and cons. Maynard, unaware, was roosting in California while his brainchild was being convicted and sentenced.
Maynard then hired a lawyer and a lobbyist, enlisted his congressman, Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Calif.), and rushed to Washington in September to try to rescue his Egg King from the chopping block. Badham argued on the House floor that the ban was a foul blow and got it plucked from the farm bill.
While all this was going on, the Agriculture Department, which oversees sanitation in the egg-breaking plants, was being pecked at from all sides. UEP wanted it to oppose the Egg King. Maynard wanted it to approve the Egg King.
The USDA does not allow centrifugal force machines in the egg-breaking plants. But since it has no jurisdiction over restaurants and bakeries, it said regulation of the Egg King, if there was to be such, was a job for the Food and Drug Administration or state and local health authorities.
James Handley, head of the Agricultural Marketing Service, conceded recently that he may have scrambled USDA's position a bit at the outset when he issued an anti-Egg King opinion. "I overlooked the point that we were getting into an area of the FDA," he said. "But Maynard wanted us to approve his machine, and we felt that was not our job."
So the House had spoken. The Egg King lived.
But the United Egg Producers turned out to be as persistent as bantam roosters. They got Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) to convene a hearing of his House Agriculture subcommittee on dairy, livestock and poultry to allow them to state their views.
UEP argued that the machine was a threat to public health and a threat to the egg makers and breakers. Maynard and Badham, with the restaurant and bakery industries flocking to their side, argued that the case had not been made against the machine.
Coelho suggested that maybe a draw was shaping up. He noted a "void" in the hearing -- the FDA was not on the witness list -- and then flew the coop while the testimony droned on.
"A campaign is being waged against the Egg King for economic reasons," Badham told the subcommittee from a witness chair after he had been denied a guest seat at the dais. "I urge the members to let our market economy decide the issue and to not unfairly legislate a small businessman out of business."
Albert E. Pope, president of the UEP, hammered at the health issue, but he conceded the Egg King is an economic threat. "Our financial security is dependent upon consumer confidence in the product we sell and continued use of the centrifuge can only undermine that confidence," he said.
Pope also accused Egg King of "completely intimidating" the USDA and charged that Maynard, who he said "has portrayed himself as a modern-day Horatio Alger," had "politicized this clearly nonpolitical issue."
Maynard, who remembered that it was UEP rather than he who had turned to Washington, was puzzled. He has shelled out more than $100,000 on legal and public relations fees, travel and telephone bills to save his machine in a fight he didn't seek.
"Destroying competition through legislation is not the American way," he said. "Gentlemen, how long will the Congress of the United States of America allow this to continue?"
Answer: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?