Cracked state inspection system hurts popular Utah egg farmer
Owners of a small Provo farm are dealing with a crack in the state's egg inspection system a quagmire that threatens their 10-year-old family business.
Earlier this week while making her regular egg deliveries, Julie Clifford, owner of Clifford Family Farms, learned that several of her regular restaurant and grocery customers had been told by local health inspectors to "cease and desist" using or selling Clifford eggs because the farm was not properly inspected.
"We've been closed down as far as third-party sales," Clifford said. "They said no restaurant or stores because you're not inspected."
The irony is that Clifford's egg operation is too small to get federal inspections that requires having at least 3,000 birds and she only has 1,700.
Currently, the Utah Department of Agriculture has no inspection program for egg operations with fewer than 3,000 birds, said department spokesperson Larry Lewis.
"We are aware of the severity of the problem," Lewis said Thursday. "It's high on our priority list."
He said state agricultural inspectors were talking with Clifford about what to do.
Any decision would affect other small farmers that sell eggs. However, the state currently does not register small-flock egg producers, "so there is now way of knowing how many there are in Utah," Lewis said.
In the meantime, Clifford and her egg-laying hens are in a holding pattern. She is able to sell only to customers who come directly to her Provo farm or at farmers markets. But that's not enough to keep the business afloat.
In the slow winter season, she relies on restaurants and grocers or third-party customers to use or sell her eggs.
"If I lose those accounts this time of year the business will go under," she said.
Clifford said she welcomes an inspection. "It's a good idea," she said. She just wishes government inspectors had come to her first to work out the problem.
"I've been in business for 10 years and been very open with them [health inspectors]," she said. "I've had questions about labeling that we've dealt with and they never once said anything about this."
In fact, because Clifford Farms also sells honey, the USDA has been to her farm several times to inspect the beehives.
The message to restaurants and stores likely came from inspectors with the Salt Lake County Health Department which "did get a complaint saying certain establishments were using sources that are unapproved," said spokesman Nicholas Rupp.
Businesses that were told to "cease and desist" includes some of Salt Lake City's top restaurants and food purveyors such as Caputo's Market and Deli, Copper Onion Restaurant, Finca and Frida Bistro.
Ryan Lowder, the chef and owner of Copper Onion, said he is one of Clifford Farms' largest customers, purchasing 60 dozen eggs a week which are used for the house-made pastas, baked goods and ice cream.
"I was sent this random message saying I needed to stop serving Clifford Farm Eggs," he said. The message surprised him since the restaurant has never had a problem with Clifford products.
"She's a good producer," Lowder said.
Lewis said it was inevitable that this issue would come up since small farms and agriculture is a niche that has grown considerably over the past five years as people seek out food grown closer to home.
"We've reacted to that by changing some of the state codes to allow for small farmers and small cottage industries," he said. "This looks like it is one of those that has grown under the radar and needs to addressed as quickly as possible."