GENE Gregory readily acknowledges that he has often not been the sharpest "guy in the room," but others in the room might well dispute his contention.
Gregory, who retired as president of the United Egg Producers (UEP) at the end of last year, led the egg industry from one that had little say about its outcome to one that pioneered concepts in egg marketing, animal welfare and food safety.
Gregory recently talked with Feedstuffs during a conference in Atlanta, Ga., where UEP is located.
After high school in the 1950s, Gregory had hoped for a scholarship to play basketball in college but instead went to work for Corn Belt Hatcheries catching chicks for $1 an hour. He held several subsequent jobs as Corn Belt increased its chick hatch and later put hens into contract production. He eventually was named vice president and general manager.
In the 1970s, Gregory began serving on committees for Midwest UEP, including serving as chair of the animal welfare committee, noting, "I always had a supreme interest in animal welfare."
In 1982, midwestern egg production was growing significantly, and Gregory resigned from the company he was heading to become membership recruiter for Midwest UEP, recalling that he went from managing a company to holding a minor position with an egg industry organization.
However, his heart was in it. He began calling on midwestern farmers who had hen houses, and in 10 years, Midwest UEP had grown from representing 20 million birds to 80 million.
It was that growth that caught the attention of then-UEP president Al Pope, who called Gregory to Atlanta in 1992 to work for UEP. "That was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he said.
Gregory led the consolidation of UEP, which had been a system of five "regionals" representing producers in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Northwest and on the West Coast, each regional with its own staff, board, committees and issues.
If a regional required assistance with an issue, it would go to UEP for support, which required the other regionals to sign on to provide financing, staff and other resources.
Gregory, backed by strong support from major "voices" at egg production companies in the different regions, brought the regionals together in 1998, allowing UEP to become more effective at representing the U.S. egg industry across the country and in Washington, D.C. (Feedstuffs, Nov. 2, 1998).
Gregory said this and other accomplishments he recalled were not about him: "Al was president, and he gave me opportunities to get things done. I don't want to take a lot of credit."
However, there were other such "opportunities," including Gregory's work to increase the visibility of Egg Clearinghouse Inc. (ECI), which egg producers established in 1970 to buy and sell eggs and egg products and provide price discovery.
Prior to ECI, producers sold their eggs to graders, who determined what they would pay for the eggs. However, by putting their production in ECI, egg producers created a platform on which bids and offers are made and eggs are traded.
Gregory said he spent time explaining and promoting this process to egg producers around the country and winning their support for and participation in the trading process.
Among Gregory's most notable accomplishments, though, was the development of UEP's animal welfare program, known today as "UEP Certified."
The effort was nothing short of a "gamble," he said.
The program was put into motion when UEP named Dr. Jeff Armstrong, at the time chair of the Purdue University animal sciences department, to head a committee of animal ethicists and animal welfare specialists who he would appoint. The committee then met and recommended guidelines for the care and welfare of hens in commercial egg production.
UEP had no control over the committee or its recommendations.
"We were confident that cage housing was better (for the hens and producer sustainability) than cage-free systems," Gregory said, but there were questions about allocation of space for and management of hens in cages. Indeed, he said, there seemed to be more interest in hen performance -- in the number of eggs produced -- than in hen welfare.
At the time, hens were housed at an average of 48 sq. in. per bird.
Armstrong's committee determined that cage housing was humane but recommended, among a number of standards, an increase in the space allotted per hen to 67 sq. in. for white hens and 76 sq. in. for brown hens. UEP adopted the recommendations in 2000 (Feedstuffs, Oct. 16, 2000), and 85% of production today comes from UEP Certified operations.
UEP Certified producers are independently audited every year to determine their compliance.
The program "started us on a path to wonderful things," including strong relationships with customers and consumers and recognition of UEP as an agricultural organization that "was willing to work on public problems," Gregory said, adding that the program includes animal welfare conferences and farm tours for customers, dietitians, nutritionists and news reporters. "No one else in animal agriculture (at the time) was willing to do that," he noted.
Gregory said UEP made Armstrong's "scientific advisory committee" the model for additional scientific advisory committees to guide producers through environmental and food safety issues.
The committee members are scientists who are reimbursed for their expenses but are not paid any consulting fee, he noted, but they appreciate being named to committees because they "get to see" their ideas and recommendations implemented in real settings.
At the same time, UEP, with a small budget and small staff, "can tap expertise that we would not otherwise be able to access," Gregory said.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is the development of our scientific advisory committees," he said.
Enriched and right
Gregory also said he's proud of the initiative UEP took three years ago to establish the UEP Egg Safety Center and hire a director of food safety. (It had been part of the Egg Nutrition Center but wasn't kept when the American Egg Board relocated the nutrition center from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Ill.)
The Egg Safety Center includes a website for communicating with customers, consumers, legislators and others, and having it ready when the DeCoster egg recall -- the largest and most publicized egg recall ever -- was announced in 2010 (Feedstuffs, Aug. 23, 2010) is probably the main reason the egg industry restored public confidence in egg safety and restored pricing as quickly as it did, Gregory said. "We were able to take calls and answer questions," he explained.
Gregory said UEP's decision to retain GolinHarris for the agency's advice on communications, especially in advocacy situations, was a good move.
Gregory also said UEP's decision to negotiate a hen housing agreement with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), despite the heat UEP has taken from agricultural groups outside the egg industry, was "the right thing to do."
The agreement calls for the U.S. egg industry to transition from conventional cages to enriched colony cage housing by the end of 2029 (Feedstuffs, July 11, 2011) -- a conversion that will begin once Congress adopts legislation mandating the process to keep the egg production "playing field" level.
The agreement would increase hen space and provide hens with "enrichments" such as nests, perches and scratching pads and would specify certain environmental and other conditions, but it would retain the use of cages to keep hens healthier and safer and support efficient egg production.
However, the legislative mandate has riled other groups that believe it would set a precedent for Congress to mandate production practices of other industries, and opposition, especially from the cattle and hog industries, has been nearly hostile.
Nevertheless, Gregory said the agreement gives both egg producers and HSUS important objectives and means that the egg industry is setting an agenda that it supports and is not standing by as HSUS or other activist groups set the agenda for the industry. The agreement represents "one of the most innovative and progressive decisions that we have ever made," he said.
Gregory served as UEP president for five years, after Pope stepped down at the end of 2006. Gregory was succeeded this year by his son, Chad Gregory, who has been with UEP for 14 years.
Gregory never did get the college education he had intended, but he makes the best of not having a degree. He said he has met and talked with business leaders in and outside the egg industry, government officials all over the world, scientists and members of Congress, "and they never knew that I was the dumbest guy in the room."
In those rooms, however, a lot got done for the U.S. egg industry.