Unscrambling the Egg Disaster

If there’s a winner in the recent recall of 550 million eggs potentially infected with salmonella enteritidis, it’s your local egg farmer.? Under the assumption that eggs sourced from small, organic, free-range farms are less likely to be contaminated with salmonella, consumers are flocking to farmers’ markets and backyard coops in a panicked quest to avoid industrially produced eggs.? According to one newspaper account, shoppers are increasingly willing to pay up to $3.50 for a dozen eggs in order to have “a direct link to their food.” But I wonder: does this make any sense?

Absolutely, according to many food analysts.? Writing in the Atlantic‘s Food Channel, Barry Estabrook, former editor at Gourmet magazine, categorically condemned “industrial-scale factory farming” as “the cause of virtually every instance of bacterial food contamination the country has experienced in recent years.” It’s the “huge farms and processors,” he explains, rather than the “small producers who live near us” that “have given us” E. coli, salmonella and listeria.? Estabrook, who raises a posse of his own chickens in a backyard horse barn, was challenged by a reader to have his birds tested for salmonella.? Admirably, he did. Verdict: clean.

For all the intuitive logic supporting Estabrook’s argument (not to mention the clean bill of health awarded his birds), others are less convinced that industrial farming per se is the problem.? In a CNN interview, Professor Michael Lacy, who heads Poultry Science at the University of Georgia, explained, “I know of no research that shows large-sale egg farming is less safe than any other,” adding that “there is no scientific evidence that free-range or organic eggs are less prone to S. Enteritidis.” Darrell Trampel, an Iowa State poultry diagnostician, agreed, telling Newsweek, “Even today, we find Salmonella Enteritidis on small organic farms-it’s not just the big ones.”? Even Michael Pollan, patron saint of the small farmer, said that, while there haven’t been similar salmonella outbreaks on organic farms, “that doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” as “organic egg operations are so tiny compared to conventional egg producers.”

The United States produces 80 billion eggs a year. About 95 percent of those eggs come from factory farms. Given that an estimated 1 in 20,000 eggs produced in the United States is contaminated with salmonella, factory farms could be said to annually churn out four million eggs infected with salmonella.? Small farms produce (and this is a generous assessment) 5 percent of the nation’s eggs. That’s about four billion eggs a year, 200,000 of which might be infected.? This comparison-four million versus 200,000 infected eggs-virtually ensures that when we hear about salmonella we’re also going to hear about factory farms.

But it does not, in and of itself, necessarily mean that, egg for egg, factory eggs are more prone to be infected, or that people aren’t getting sick from eggs laid by a backyard hen that had a run-in with a backyard rat (after all, for every case of salmonella reported, an estimated 30 go unreported).

Another matter to consider is that the recently recalled eggs came from two Iowa farms owned by an exceptionally rotten egg, Austin “Jack” DeCoster. DeCoster has a history of blatant safety violations dating back to 1975. The FDA’s recent investigation into DeCoster’s operations uncovered a henhouse of horrors replete with mice, maggots, sick birds and improperly stored manure piles. Given the poor quality of DeCoster’s chicken shacks, it’s hard to believe that there haven’t more than the 1,600 or so reported cases of salmonella infection in humans. But, at the same time, it’s also hard to believe that all egg farms are as bad as Jack’s.

Indeed, one of the more interesting articles to emerge from the intense coverage of the egg scandal came from Elizabeth Weise at USA Today. Her article reported on a factory farm in Illinois (Pearl Valley Eggs) housing over a million hens that collectively produce 800,000 to 850,000 eggs a day. Big. Although Weise notes that a forthcoming study in Poultry Science will argue that farms with over 100,000 hens per house are more likely to test positive for salmonella, she also reveals that Pearl Valley Eggs, which has been testing eggs for a decade, has never turned up a single case of Salmonella Enteriditis. The reason: good management. Conveyor belts whisk away manure, massive fans control dust and temperature, and biohazard security is airtight. It all leads me to wonder if, when we talk about salmonella-infected eggs, what we’re really talking about is poor management and slack regulation, rather than large size?

Pearl Valley notwithstanding, most advocates of sustainable agriculture find the idea of a clean industrial farm to be an oxymoron.? They would instead prefer to see a radical decentralization of the egg industry into hundreds of thousands of small egg farms, the very farms that many consumers are now patronizing under the assumption that they’re inherently safer. Trust me, I’m no advocate of industrial animal farms (for what it’s worth, I don’t even eat animal products), but a wholesale transition away from factory to free-range, organic egg farms-were it even a realistic possibility-strikes me as problematic for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is a 2005 study published in the Journal of Food Protection. Researchers, who noted that commercial chickens processed from 2000 to 2003 had a salmonella prevalence rate of 9.1 to 12.8 percent (according to the USDA), found salmonella in 31 percent of the free range birds they tested, and in 25 percent of the “all natural” birds in their sample. The authors concluded: “Consumers should not assume that free range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the salmonella status of the chicken.” Granted, just one study with a relatively small sample, and perhaps even one we should not make overly much of, but still, one we cannot dismiss either.

The second is a 2009 article that Dr. Dennis Maki, a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin, published in The New England Journal of Medicine. After analyzing nationwide outbreaks of salmonella, he warned, “To those who believe that the solution is a return to a pastoral, early-20th-century model with millions of small farms producing more ‘natural’ food . . . it would be impossible to feed 300 million Americans, much less the rest of the world.” The real challenge, he explained, “is to enhance the quality and safety of industrially produced food.”

Bingo. I’ll explore how this might be done in a forthcoming post. For now, though, suffice it to say that the food safety bill now stalled in the Senate needs to be revived, fitted with genuine regulatory teeth, and armed with incentives designed to prevent regulators from being co-opted by industry. What would happen, for example, if a single USDA regulator were assigned to a single factory farm and, in addition to a handsome salary, was rewarded with a $100,000 bonus every year the farm went salmonella-free?

Granted, lobbyists for Big Ag will balk (to say the least), but industrial agriculture-which has never been under heavier fire by critics who are convincing mainstream consumers to vote with their forks-needs to realize that the only way it will survive the onslaught of bad publicity (deserved or not) is to prove that it can produce the most abundant, cheapest and safest food in the world. In essence, they need to make DeCoster and his half-billion tainted eggs the exception that proves the rule.

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  1. Justin James says:

    Who cares? Just cook your eggs completely like you should be doing, and this is a non-issue! That’s how I feel about e coli too… if people washed their fruits and vegetables like they are supposed to, e coli is incredibly reduced. Again, NON ISSUE.

    J.Ja

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  2. eyesay says:

    Allegedly, it would be impossible to feed 300 million Americans, much less the rest of the world, using a pastoral, early-20th-century model with millions of small farms producing more ‘natural’ food. The criterion “pastoral, early-20th-century model” isn’t well defined, but this conclusion is completely lacking in foundation. Most of the world’s food is produced with relatively little technology, on millions of small farms, so the author seems to be saying that the world isn’t feeding itself. So, are we importing wheat from mars? Come on.

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  3. Ian Kemmish says:

    There would seem to be two opposing factors:

    1) In larger flocks, a single outbreak can infect far more birds and therefore affect far more eggs.

    2) On the other hand, a large, commercially focussed organisation is likely to be better able to implement proper testing and vaccination procedures.

    One also needs to be careful with compensation and bonus schemes, to skirt Murphy’s Law. Earlier outbreaks of various animal diseases here (the UK) and elsewhere in the EU showed:

    1) If you destroy and compensate farmers for infected animals, some ethically challenged small farmers will sell infected animals to each other;

    2) but if you don’t compensate them, some ethically challenged vets will fail to report the disease. The idea of a vet who is paid $100,000 to not detect a disease doesn’t seem attractive to me.

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  4. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    Would you like some Antibiotics with your Eggs?

    How about a third shaker: Sea Salt, Coarse Spice Island Black Pepper, and Country Style Penicillin. …Maybe Tobasco also has inherrent bacterial killing power, as they demonstrate with Hepatitis infections and Oysters.

    Locavore Eggs are only contamination free until they aren’t. As in Industrial Agg, it takes one poorly managed unhygienic farm to ruin it for the lot.

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  5. Roxa says:

    Not sure the assumption that consumers are flocking to farmers markets for organic free range eggs because they are concerned about food safety is completely accurate — it could be that many peopIe were horrified to learn how their food was being produced and were motivated to seek out an alternative. Also, the taste and nutrition of a fresh egg from a pastured hen blows an industrially produced egg away. You get what you pay for.

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  6. RaquelCMS says:

    Salmonella is mostly seen to be found in industrialized eggs because of the high quantity of eggs produced in the industries. In these industries, the chickens are fed with the least quality of food and millions are put in a small areas, not allowing them to move or stand and therefore not producing muscle. The dens also have a very low level of hygiene. Not only do these conditions on how the eggs are being produced benefit the producers since the cost of producing eggs is lower, but it also benefits the consumers since the eggs are sold at a cheaper price because more are being produced. If the eggs were to be produced like in the Pearl Valley Eggs farm, the eggs containing Salmonella will surely decrease as well as the total number of eggs put in the market since less will be produced. With that, the price of eggs will increase.

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  7. CantuCMS says:

    I believe that considering all the evidence, the best course of action is what the article’s conclusion suggests; try to make industrial farming safer. There is simply no way that small scale agriculture can provide the same amount of food products as large-scale industrial agriculture, and even if they could studies suggest that the food it produces is not really safer than industrial agriculture. But the example given about Pearl Valley suggests that with better management and enforcing of safety measures, industrial agriculture has the potential to produce vast amounts of cheap, safe food.

    The real issue, then, is making this happen. Implementing safety measures will no doubt cost the corporations money, rising the prices of farm products. Official regulation is also difficult, since inspectors can either be bribed or deceived by corporations into allowing unsafe farms to continue operating. In the end, it’s the government’s job to ensure that the safety regulations are well implemented, and that safety procedures such as vaccination are made available at the lowest cost possible.

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  8. dani says:

    Rather than more regulation, how about firing incompetent inspectors? Evidence shows that the inspectors were utterly incompetent in this case… http://www.politicolnews.com/wright-egg-inspection-report-was-a-farce/

    Also, if the FDA was a private institution, it would be out of business by now! Their corruption, conflict of interest and incompetence is put to shame by private safety and quality agencies like Consumer Reports!!
    http://suburbangreenthumb.blogspot.com/2010/09/consumer-reports-vs-fda.html

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