State agriculture officials are requiring a Santa Maria-based company to revise statements made on the packaging of its low-cholesterol eggs.
The relabeling became necessary because more recent laboratory tests revealed that Rosemary Farm's eggs contain as much as 210 milligrams cholesterol each and not the 125 milligrams claimed by the firm since October.
Paul May, the farm's general manager, said that the discrepancy is the result of errors on the part of the state's chemists in performing the cholesterol analysis.
A spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture contends that the label change was ordered when the cholesterol content of the Rosemary Farm eggs varied in subsequent testings.
A large Grade A egg contains about 274 milligrams of cholesterol, according to USDA Handbook 8, and last year's arrival of the Rosemary Farm version created a great deal of interest in the food industry and among consumers.
Medical research has linked elevated blood cholesterol to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack. Health official recommend that adults limit their daily cholesterol intake to about 300 milligrams.
Rosemary Farm's claim that it had achieved a 55% reduction in the potentially harmful dietary compound's level in eggs was considered a major breakthrough in food technology.
At the time, the news led industry representatives to predict that the method would rejuvenate egg sales, which had suffered because of dietary concerns as well as changes in eating habits.
Now, however, the state maintains that the cholesterol levels in the Rosemary Farm eggs have not remained consistent.
Ardie Ferrill, program supervisor of the egg inspection program for the state's Department of Food and Agriculture, conceded that the department was pressed by numerous individuals about the scientific feasibility of dramatically reducing egg's cholesterol profile.
"Everyone questioned it because it was so low," he said.
Even so, Ferrill maintains that it was fluctuations in the Rosemary Farm eggs' cholesterol content that led to the labeling revision and not problems with testing.
"We don't know the answer to the question about why there was a difference (between lab tests in October and more recently)," said Ferrill. "The eggs varied, not the laboratory procedures."
Ferrill did say that the state's chemists now use a testing method that extracts fatty acids from the egg yolks before removing cholesterol. In the original testing procedures, the cholesterol present was removed first.
The difference in techniques, though, is significant, according to Annie J. King, an assistant professor of avian sciences at UC Davis.
"Those two methods differ in the way you prepare the cholesterol and the way you extract (it)," said King, who is familiar with the Rosemary Farm developments. "There is some question in my mind whether (the two tests) will give you the same values unless you are very careful with the methodology."
King said that it is possible that all of the state's cholesterol calculations, even those for other commodities, may be inaccurate if the first method--as indicated by Ferrill--was used throughout the initial review of Rosemary Farm eggs.
As such, she does not fault the company for the mix-up.
"(They) did everything they were supposed to do," she said.
As a result of the change the new label will state, "Rosemary Farm Lowered Cholesterol Grade AA Eggs." A phrase on nutritional information will further state that the eggs contain "210 milligrams of cholesterol compared to 274 milligrams in a regular egg."
The company is selling about 25,000 of the reduced cholesterol eggs per week and does not anticipate any sales decline because of the state's action.
"We don't think it will make a difference," said May. "We feel it is a superior egg, in any event."
The company maintains that the state was "careless" in its initial analysis and that his company will suffer some financial losses as a result, most likely from the additional costs of new packaging.
"Certainly, I'm upset that it happened," May said.
"It is my understanding that they were using a method for checking cholesterol that is used for ice cream, butter and dairy products. There is a separate method for checking cholesterol in eggs," he said. "I don't know why they didn't use that."