Unscrambling Scales of Production

12 Oct 2010

The recall of 550 million eggs infected with Salmonella in the USA this August has put large-scale poultry farming under the microscope and at the center of a new campaign by Slow Food USA. It was the largest outbreak since monitoring began in the 1970’s, yet only two companies, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, were responsible for the recall that stretched as far afield as Mexico and accounted for 1,470 ill due to Salmonella enteritidis poisoning. In the aftermath, as the FDA investigated the source they noted a long list of adverse conditions and breaches of safety regulations, including the presence of manure, rodents, flies, cats, and birds in the facilities, which house 7.7 million caged hens.

This latest alarm bell provokes questions wider than the incidents in Iowa, about the very nature of industrial poultry farming practices, since what is clear is that the majority of food safety outbreaks happen on large-scale, intensive farms and when something does go wrong the consequences are far-reaching.

Issues of safety standards and adverse conditions are not unique to large-scale farming and as Barry Estabrook, former contributing editor of Gourmet magazine, points out, wild birds, the presence of manure, rodents, cats and other animals cited as “adverse conditions” by the FDA are not new to the way people have farmed in the past. However, the conditions that exist on these large-scale poultry farms – millions of confined birds, massive centralized breeding, antibiotics in bird feed – are relatively new and Estabrook believes are the true culprits of bacterial outbreaks. Adding to the wheels of large-scale production is the consumer’s expectation to pay an artificially low price for eggs – today $1.44 on average for a dozen eggs, compared to $2.05 in the 1980’s when adjusted for inflation.

In 2004 and 2005 all European member states carried out tests to gauge the extent of Salmonella in commercial egg laying farms. They identified several factors, but the first and most important was that the larger the holding, the more likely a Salmonella outbreak was to occur, with holdings of more than 30,000 birds at highest risk. The risk was found to reduce with non-caged systems, vaccination and the presence of cats and dogs on the farm.

John Ingraham, emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of California-Davis, says: “I don’t think there is any doubt about it that healthy chickens living in decent surroundings are just going to be a lot more resistant to Salmonella”. He is also suspicious of the massive doses of antibiotics fed to birds: “Antibiotics kill off healthy, normal intestinal flora. That gives Salmonella a good chance to get started there”.

Unfortunately, buying organic eggs doesn’t necessarily offer a safer solution today, nor does it ensure the birds are free-range and healthy. The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for small, organic, family farms, has published a report of their two-year research project covering 15% of the certified organic egg farms in the United States. Their conclusions were not favorable, finding that industrial-scale organic egg producers are barely meeting the minimum standards. For example, most of these large henhouses, some holding as many as 85,000 birds, provide no proper access to the outdoors, which is required by the federal organic regulations.

Slow Food USA have launched a campaign advocating for a food safety bill that concentrates on what it calls the “bad actors” in the industry without damaging the small and family run farms, supporting Senator Leahy’s Food Safety Accountability Act, which would make holding corporations and their leaders accountable. They are also pushing for congress to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act which includes increasing inspection of high risk facilities like Wright County Egg.

Visit the Slow Food USA campaign page to watch their Inedible Egg video and sign their petition.

Kate Johnston

The Atlantic
Politics of the Plate
Slow Food USA
The Cornucopia Institute

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