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Healthier eggs a new niche for farmers
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Brown chicken on the Gary Lonneman farm. He feeds his chickens feed with flax seed to create Omega Three-enhanced eggs. (Cara Hetland)
When the American Heart Association told consumers eggs were high in cholesterol, consumption plummeted. But now, there's a new egg on the market. An egg enhanced with Omega Three fatty acid can actually help reduce the risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol. Minnesota has nearly 11 million hens. It's the 8th highest egg-producing state in the country. Farmers who got out of the egg business now may see a reason to get back in.

Sioux Falls, SD — Ray Teeter, 79, delivers eggs from St. Peter to Morris to Marshall to Sioux Falls. The self-described delivery boy, visits health food stores and grocery stores along the way.

"They keep my 'Omega 3' eggs right down here. One, two, three - three dozen is all they have left," says Teeter as he opens the cooler.

Last week Teeter delivered 10 dozen eggs to the East Dakota Food Co-op in downtown Sioux Falls. The brown eggs named "Omega 3" eggs, are about 50 cents more a dozen than others in the co-op's cooler.

Annie Blatz is the co-op buyer. She'll order another 10 dozen eggs this week. She says most people know what Omega Three fatty acids are, and that they're beneficial. She and Ray Teeter talk as he restocks his "Omega 3" eggs.

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Image Ray Teeter delivers Omega 3 eggs to health food and grocery stores across the region.

"Some are willing to pay more, some aren't," says Blatz. "It also caused our other egg supplier to recreate his label. He already fed chickens in a similar way - not tested like you've done with yours Ray. It's competition."

Gary Lonneman belongs to the Southwestern Minnesota Poultry Co-op. He has crops and pigs and now chickens on his Rushmore farm. He and 15 other farmers started the co-op a year ago. For Lonneman, bringing chickens onto the farm revived a childhood memory.

"We had a lot of egg fights as kids," laughs Lonneman.

Lonneman has 200 chickens in his coop. The door is open and the chickens wander in and out. He gives them feed enriched with flax seed, buck wheat, oats and soybeans. The chickens are also free to eat grass and bugs. Lonneman says it didn't cost much to start the egg part of his operation. He says, it's already making money. He says more and more people want to buy their food directly from a farmer.

"It seems to be a trend with the farmer's markets - the 'buy locally' thing. That's becoming a real big issue. People want to know where their food is coming from. They can come out here and take a look at it," says Lonneman.

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Image Omega 3 eggs in a health food store cooler

Lonneman gathers about 130 eggs a day and sorts and packages them himself. Ray Teeter picks them up and makes the deliveries. Gary Lonneman puts his name and address on the carton. There's also a guarantee his chickens ate flax seed and roamed free. He does not include nutrition facts on the carton. He does not guarantee that each egg has a certain amount of Omega Three fatty acid. He says there's six times more Omega Three than in a standard white egg because he uses flax seed feed.

It almost sounds too easy. Feed a chicken flax seed and there's a healthier egg with a higher amount of Omega Three fatty acid. But for some, this new development in egg nutrition, is clearly science.

Sheila Scheideler is a professor of poultry science at the University of Nebraska. In 1993 some North Dakota flax growers asked her to do some research. They wanted to know if they could create an egg with more Omega Three fatty acid by feeding a hen more flax seed. Five years later Scheideler came up with a feeding process that guaranteed the same amount of Omega Three fatty acid in each egg.

"It's a little more complex than just adding flax seed because you have to adjust the other ingredients in the diet so that the bird efficiently produces that egg so we can insure 350 mg in every egg produced," says Scheideler.

Scheideler holds the patient on the feed and a trademark on the name "Omega Eggs." She says it's becoming more common for farmers to change their chicken feed and say they have Omega Three-enhanced eggs. The problem is it's easy to confuse her "Omega Egg" with the farmer's "Omega 3" egg. But the nutritional content between the two may not be the same.

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Image Chicken feed with flax seed and buck wheat and oats.

Scheideler's feeding process guarantees a minimum of 350 mg of Omega Three fatty acid in every egg. That's 110 mg more than the brown "Omega 3" eggs from Gary Lonneman's farm. Scheideler says her chickens are not free roaming. Their diet is more strictly controlled. "Omega Eggs" are white. They're sold in Hy-Vee grocery stores in seven midwestern states. They cost about 50 cents more a dozen, than a standard white egg. Scheideler says the "Omega Eggs" have been a marketing challenge. That's because consumers remember the old alarms about cholesterol.

"The American Heart Association has changed its recommendation that a person can eat an egg a day and that's okay," says Scheideler. "But that took years of research by the American Egg Board specifically with human subjects to overcome that stigma. That stigma is still out there in a lot of dietician and consumer minds that eggs are a huge source of cholesterol and I'm going to limit my intake of them," she says.

Scheideler says her research shows people can eat a dozen Omega Eggs a week and they'll actually be healthier for it.

"We did human study subjects and of those subjects 23 did not increase their cholesterol and some saw reduction in triglycerides and some saw reduction in cholesterol the bad cholesterol. We did have two hyper responders that did not have any positive responses with the eggs," says Scheideler.

Dieticians tell heart and cholesterol patients that Omega Three fatty acid will help them lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of hearth disease. Leanne Kramer is a dietician at Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls. She has never told patients to eat Omega Three enhanced eggs. She does tell patients to eat more fish like salmon and tuna which are high in the fatty acid at least three times a week. After doing research for this story, Kramer says she's convinced non-fish eaters would benefit from "Omega Eggs".

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Image Chickens roam free on Gary Lonneman's farm

"I'm going to tell people to use Omega eggs, just be careful where you get them from," says Kramer.

Kramer says consumers have to read labels. A standard white egg has 40 mg of Omega Three fatty acid. The other omega-enhanced eggs vary in the amount of what's called "good fat". All are healthy for you.

University of Nebraska Poultry Professor Sheila Scheideler says the "Omega Egg" is just the beginning.

"I wish every egg could be a modified little source of vitamins and good fat. And I think we will eventually get to that point of where eggs are considered a good source of Omega Three fatty acid, of Vitamin E and folic acid because it's an amazing little package that we can manipulate to be a more healthful product," says Scheideler.

Scientists are also looking at ways to enhance vitamins and good fat in dairy products. Scheideler says there could be a day when frying an egg in butter might be better for you than a vitamin pill. And farmers can get in on the niche marketing, if it happens.

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