As hundreds of millions of eggs get recalled over salmonella fears, The Daily Beast talks to farmers and food activists about what went wrong—and finds 9 reasons to remain concerned from here on.
It's one of the country’s worst food-safety recalls, with more than 380 million eggs stripped from supermarket shelves in the last week over fears of salmonella poisoning. Yesterday the recall spread wider as a second Iowa farm announced it is calling back its products. The eggs are sold under such well-known brands as Farm Fresh, Hillandale, Lucerne, and Ralph’s, and over a thousand people have been sickened in California, Minnesota, Colorado, and elsewhere.
“We’re dealing here with a company that’s not very interested in following rules, and they cut corners in lots of ways,” says Marion Nestle.
1. Petri Dishes for Disease
Joel Salatin, a farmer whose farm Polyface is featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc., tells The Daily Beast that conditions in factory farms are ideal for the spread of infection: “The propensity for a problem is magnified under the fecal particulate air in these industrial egg farms. What it does is it breaks down the immune system and creates openings for pathogens. If you were trying to design a pathogen-friendly system, you would go to a single species, crowd that species together, deny it fresh air, exercise, and sunshine, never give it a rest time—have it there 365 days a year, and feed it a diet that maximizes a minimal standard of performance, rather than maximizes nutrition or feed that is nutritionally superior. What I’ve just described is Egg Factory Farming 101. This is just symptomatic of the pathogen-friendly nature of industrial agriculture.”
2. Massive Farms Magnify Any Disease
Further compounding the risk is the tremendous centralization of the factory farm system. As Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat, points out, “these large industrial producers where if there’s a problem, it’s going to get magnified over many states and many people.” Salatin agrees, saying that “Whereas a problem in the local food system only affects a few people, a problem in a factory farm can infect, for instance, hundreds of millions of eggs and tens of thousands of people.”
• 6 Things You Should Know About Salmonella3. Infection Is More Common Than We Think
When you have such massive farms, each distributing its eggs to dozens of grocery chains, any problem gets compounded. In the case of the current outbreak, William Marler, a prominent foodborne-illness litigator, points out that the CDC’s rule of thumb is that 38 people are sickened by salmonella for every case that’s reported, so the number of people infected by the current outbreak could potentially number in the tens of thousands.
4. Free-Range Eggs Are No Healthier
Free-range eggs are healthier—and provide more peace of mind—than factory-farmed eggs, right? Wrong. In fact, according to Jonathan Safran Foer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t have a definition of “free-range” for laying hens. What’s more, factory-farmed chickens are often labeled as free-range. In the end, no one knows exactly what they’re eating. As Foer writes in Eating Animals, “I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.”
5. Companies Avoid What Little Regulation Exists
According to Marion Nestle, legislation would help, but companies are determined to skirt regulation and the FDA lacks the clout to enforce what rules it has: “We’re dealing here with a company that’s not very interested in following rules, and they cut corners in lots and lots of ways. One of the ways they cut corners is safety. The other part is the FDA still doesn’t have the tools it needs to enforce the rules it has.” William Marler points out that legislation that might have prevented this outbreak languished for eight years during the Bush administration before being implemented on July 8, just as the outbreak began. Even then, Marler says, most of the “Egg Rule,” known officially as “Federal Register Final Rule: Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation,” is common-sense testing and should have been followed voluntarily.
6. Healthy Eggs Are Expensive
Marion Nestle, Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, and other food activists agree that the consumers must start demanding healthier eggs, even if it means paying more. Says Nestle, “The rules that are in the FDA’s egg legislation will require producers to do things differently, with some hope that they’ll move into more sustainable, reasonable practices. But as long as this country insists on cheap food, as long as that pressure is there, it’s understood that we value food for how little it costs, as opposed to how it’s produced or how it tastes, and there isn’t going to be a lot of pressure on producers to change things.”
7. Cheap Eggs Sell Better
But for those of you hoping that voting with your dollar will encourage producers to be cleaner and more humane, the polls bode ill: According to recent data from Information Resources Inc, which tracks checkout scanner transactions from 34,000 grocery stores in the U.S., we’re buying eggs from cage housing systems 40 times as often as we’re buying cage-free eggs.
8. Farms Lack Transparency
According to Michael Pollan, industrial egg farms are the worst sort of factory farms. So bad, in fact, that journalists are rarely allowed inside them. When Carole Morison let a camera crew in for Food Inc., she lost her contract and went on to co-found the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance.
9. Cruel Farm Conditions
Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Eating Animals, writes of an often-overlooked trend in factory farming: food and light deprivation. One farmer described it to Foer this way: “As soon as females mature—in the turkey industry at 23 to 26 weeks and with chickens 16 to 20—they’re put into barns and they lower the light; sometimes it’s total darkness 24/7. And then they put them on a very low-protein diet, almost a starvation diet.” The result: Birds lay up to three or four times as many eggs as in nature. “After that first year, they are killed because they won’t lay as many the second year,” the farmer said. “The industry figured out it's cheaper to slaughter them and start over than it is feed and house birds that lay fewer eggs.” Foer’s conclusion: “After learning about it, I didn’t want to eat a conventional egg ever again.”