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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.