Auburn Speaks
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development

Handle With Care

Written by Karen Hunley

Dr. Deana Jones Enjoys Juggling Multiple Roles in the Egg Production Industry

“Eggs are what I do,” says Deana Jones.

Yet as a young girl growing up in Montgomery County, North Carolina, and even as she entered college, Jones didn’t think poultry or egg research would be her career. Now she spends an inordinate amount of time ensuring that this breakfast staple, which is also an essential ingredient in countless other food items, is wholesome and safe to eat.

“My grandparents had poultry farms, but I swore to my father I wouldn’t major in poultry science,” Jones said. “Well, I got to North Carolina State, and it took me only one semester to add poultry science as major.”

Deana Jones - Photo credit: USDA Agricultural Research Service

ARS food technologist Deana Jones (foreground) and hyperspectral imaging specialist Jerry Heitschmidt examine eggs for shell quality defects as biological science aide Vicky Broussard uses a pressure device to test eggs for cracks. – Photo credit: USDA Agricultural Research Service

Now, in addition to being a research food technologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in the Egg Safety and Quality Unit in Athens, Georgia, she is director of the National Egg Products School (NEPS) held at Auburn University every two years. The school, sponsored by the National Egg Board and the Auburn University Food Systems Institute, is an introduction to processed eggs and covers the formation of the egg through packaging of the final product. Thirty-three people attended the last NEPS.

Jones also serves on the board of directors of the annual National Egg Quality School (NEQS), which focuses on the production, quality, and safety guidelines of shell eggs. Sponsored by more than a dozen national and state organizations, the NEQS is held at a different location in the U.S. each year.

Jones lectures and develops material for both egg schools, which serve mainly egg industry workers and regulators as well as educators.

As for her research with ARS, Jones says she is equally interested in egg quality and egg safety. The broad research possibilities associated with both areas keep her quite busy–but happy.

“They each have their interesting moments,” she said. “I enjoy both aspects so I don’t view either as a hardship.”

Jones is currently involved in a multi-faceted three-year study to understand the impact of different housing systems on the egg supply, and she is focusing specifically on egg quality. The three commercial housings systems are conventional cages, which contain no fewer than three hens and are the standard for commercial egg production; enriched cages, larger than conventional cages and containing perches, nest boxes, and scratch pads for natural foraging activities; and an aviary system, allowing birds to move freely in a defined area with nest boxes, perches, and a forage area.

“Through this project, we are striving to collect as many scientific facts as possible pertaining to egg safety and egg quality from the various housing systems so that consumers and egg producers can make informed decisions,” Jones said.

Those decisions may relate to hen management and hen genetics for the housing system a producer chooses to use, she explains.

As for consumers, publishing this research allows consumers to have access to detailed information about egg safety, egg quality, and hen housing methods so that they can make informed decisions when buying eggs, Jones said. This is important since housing methods during egg production has been a controversial subject for many years, with animal welfare groups claiming that conventional caging, in particular, is inhumane because of the hens’ close quarters.

Jones also led a project focusing on the environmental and egg microbiology of laying hens in conventional cages compared to a free-range sister flock. The team found no difference in the incidence of Salmonella and Listeria in the two environments.

“Our group at ARS basically looks at ways you can safely place hens together and manage them, and how those production systems impact egg production and quality,” Jones explained.

Additionally, she was a critical part of the research team that developed a new method for detecting microcracks in eggs. This technology uses a modified pressure environment and computer-sensing technology to detect cracks that are not visible to the human eye, Jones said.

“Microcracks are of concern because the shell is the first line of defense for the egg from external microbial contamination,” she explained. “Breaks in the shell’s integrity create potential passages for microbial invasion.”

Before joining the Egg Safety and Quality Unit at ARS, Jones was a part of the organization’s Poultry Processing and Meat Quality Unit. She came to ARS straight from NC State, where she earned two bachelor’s degrees–food science and poultry science–as well as a master’s in poultry science and a doctorate in physiology.

It just seemed like a “natural progression” to hone in on egg production after growing up around a poultry farm and years of poultry science education, Jones said.

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