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PEF member works to ensure the quality of eggs

By KATE MOSTACCIO

PEF member Mike Santoro didn’t set out looking to work in the egg grading industry. With an associate’s degree in culinary arts, he held a variety of jobs before he landed at Wayne County Eggs.

“I worked as a chef for a long time, tended bar for 11 years at West Point,” he said. “I ended up getting a job at the IBM plant in East Fishkill. Then a former state employee told me about the farm products exam and said I should take it.”

Santoro planned to take the food inspector exam initially, but lacking the necessary qualifications the system kicked out his application. Instead, he took the farm products exam and the rest fell into place.

“A year later, they called me,” he said. The interview was for a position in Sullivan County at an egg products plant outside of Monticello. Santoro took it. “I did want the stability of a state job, but it’s something that fell into my lap, too.”

Since then, he has moved on to Wayne County Eggs 61 miles from his residence. Kreher Family Farms acquired Wayne County Eggs, the former Wegman’s egg farm, in 2007.

Santoro’s day starts at 6:15 a.m., when he makes his rounds inspecting the plant machinery.

“This first thing I do is a pre-operation sanitation check of the entire processing floor,” Santoro said. He checks every machine – from the egg washer to the packing machines – to assure everything is clean and there is no food contamination on any surfaces or any kind of possible cross contamination with a foreign material or object, he said.

As a USDA-licensed grader, one of the products Santoro inspects and grades at the plant are Eggland’s Best eggs. He said USDA grading is voluntary.

“It’s a service that indicates the product has been inspected by a licensed grader,” he said. “You don’t have to have one, but Eggland’s Best will not allow you to pack Eggland’s Best eggs unless you have a full-time resident grader on the premises.”

Santoro inspects 30 to 40 sample batches, each containing about 100 eggs. In a darkened booth, Santoro uses “candling,” a process where graders place eggs above a light to illuminate their interiors for inspection.

“You’re checking for internal defects,” Santoro said. “There could be blood in the yolk or white. Meat spots, which are pieces of protein that occur when the egg is being developed in the chicken. These are scorable defects that are removed from the sample. You’re only allowed so many of these defects for each lot of eggs.”

According to Santoro, foodborne illnesses sicken millions of people each year, making egg inspections all the more valuable.

“That’s why it’s important to have somebody in there that’s licensed and can inspect your food and protect the consumer from any type of illness,” he said. “The Ag and Markets Food Safety Inspection Service also educates the customer about how important it is to reduce the risk of illness and the importance of safe food handling.”

Santoro is an essential worker and continued to report in-person to the plant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, dedicated to keeping consumers safe.

“The farm can’t operate without me there and I haven’t spent one day working from home since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said.

Public service is in his blood. Santoro comes from a long line of union workers. Grading eggs is his second union job – he previously worked as a telephone operator at Rockland Psychiatric Center back in the 1980s.

His mother retired from Dutchess County BOCES as an instructional services administrator who helped develop distance learning programs – at the time, conducted via television. His maternal great-grandmother and grandparents all worked at the Wallkill Correctional Facility from its opening.

“My grandfather was a corrections officer. His crew of inmates made the blocks that built that prison,” he said. “My grandmother was a stenographer and her mother was hired as a cook. She cooked for Leo Palmer, the first warden of that prison.

“I’m a fourth generation public servant in my family,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a public servant.”