KAHULUI - Maui may not have an egg farm any more, but it does have entrepreneur Dorvin Leis, and Leis and his partners own the patents on pasteurizing eggs in the shell.
This summer's recall of 550 million eggs because of salmonella contamination is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for Davidson's Safest Choice Eggs to get its message out, said Chuck Leis, Dorvin's son and chairman of National Pasteurized Eggs Inc., which sells the Davidson's brand.
Since the big egg crackup that originated in Iowa about two weeks ago, National Pasteurized has had many callers, Chuck Leis said in an interview Saturday. One of its first responses was to hire a lobbyist to educate lawmakers to their argument that the answer to egg contamination already exists.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Coupons for Davidson’s Safest Choice eggs are displayed. The Mainland business is owned by Maui businessman Dorvin Leis and his partners, who own patents on a technique for pasteurizing eggs in their shells.
A mandate to pasteurize shell eggs could not, however, be put into practice overnight in a nation that consumes 70 billion eggs a year. But Davidson's, which sold 18 million dozen eggs last year, is operating at half capacity, Leis said, and could double its output quickly.
Furthermore, it has a third pasteurizing machine on order and a fourth in the wings.
The machines are "like a Jacuzzi." The eggs are dipped into heated water for a set time, just hot enough and just long enough to kill salmonella bacteria (or bird flu viruses) but not long enough or hot enough to start curdling the white.
Leis said that his eggs "taste exactly" like an unpasteurized egg.
Dorvin Leis, better known locally for his mechanical contracting business, has a number of other business interests on the Mainland, including one in washable leather. Some years ago, the leather business was involved in some intellectual property litigation, and the lawyer handling that case mentioned that he had a client who held patents on egg pasteurizing.
Leis and his partners bought the distributorship for 13 western states but say that when the original company saw how successful they were likely to be, it tried to squeeze them out. It didn't work. The original company went into bankruptcy, and when everything was sorted out, the Leis interests controlled the patents and the national business and were building a business that sold eggs mainly to institutions: retirement homes, schools, hospitals and other places whose residents might be particularly at risk from Salmonella enteritidis.
Chuck Leis said that when National Pasteurized cleared bankruptcy, it had annual sales of less than $1 million. In 2009, sales were nearly $32 million.
Opportunities now seem boundless. The company has international patents and is discussing prospects outside the country with entrepreneurs in Singapore.
National Pasteurized Eggs does not raise chickens itself. It has a principal supplier to its original plant in Lansing, Mich., which employs about 100 people.
The chickens get an all-vegetarian diet, and birds are selected to produce thick shells that withstand the treatment better. Only intact eggs are sold as Davidson's.
Dorvin Leis said the 550 million nonpasteurized eggs that were recalled this summer due to salmonella contamination "won't be wasted." Processors will use them in cooked food. Thorough cooking kills salmonella, but many egg dishes, from Caesar salad dressing to eggnog to raw cookie dough, are eaten without cooking.
The pasteurized eggs are sealed with wax to keep environmental contaminants from being introduced and marked with a red "P" in a circle. According to Chuck Leis, the process kills harmful bacteria from the shell throughout the whole egg.
A second pasteurizing plant has been opened in South Dakota, because customers wanted assurances that pasteurized shell eggs would continue to be available if some disaster struck the Michigan plant.
Davidson's eggs are distributed in Hawaii by Times and Foodland, although they can be hard to find on Maui.
The Food and Drug Administration had imposed an anti-salmonella rule on large producers on July 9, which required, among other things, refrigeration. But since salmonella "is everywhere," Chuck Leis considered that an outbreak somewhere was probably inevitable. The biggest in American history came less than a month after the rule took effect.
National Pasteurized Eggs is taking the positive view that this is a "chance to educate the consumer," since until now breaking into the retail sector "has been our hardest target," said Chuck Leis.
"People don't realize it," he said, "but everything in the dairy case is pasteurized except eggs."
More about Davidson's eggs is available online at www.safeeggs.com.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.