How Factory Farms Are Pumping Americans Full of Deadly Bacteria and Pathogens
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KF: What about salmonella? Is it really a big deal, or is it just a matter of an upset stomach?
MG: Salmonella kills more Americans than any other food-borne illness. There is an epidemic of egg-borne food poisoning every year in the United States. To this day, more than 100,000 Americans are sickened annually by salmonella-infected eggs.
KF: Do we have more salmonella now than we did 25 or 50 years ago? If so, why?
MG: There was a time when our grandparents could drink eggnog and children could eat raw cookie dough without fear of joining the thousands of Americans hospitalized with salmonella infections every year. Before the industrialization of egg production, salmonella only sickened a few hundred Americans every year and Salmonella enteritidis was not found in eggs at all. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, Salmonella enteritidis-contaminated eggs were sickening an estimated 182,000 Americans annually.
There are many industrial practices that contribute to the alarming rates of this disease. Most eggs come from hens confined in battery cages, small barren wire enclosures affording these animals less living space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper for virtually their entire one- to two-year lifespan. Salmonella-contaminated battery cage operations in the United States confine an average of more than 100,000 hens in a single shed. The massive volume of contaminated airborne fecal dust in such a facility rapidly accelerates the spread of infection.
Factory farming practices also led to the spread of salmonella around the world. Just as the feeding of dead animals to live ones triggered the mad cow crisis, this same practice has also been implicated in the global spread of salmonella. Once egg production wanes, hens may be ground up and rendered into what is called “spent hen meal,” and then fed to other hens. More than half of the feed samples for farmed birds containing slaughter-plant waste tested by the FDA were found contaminated with salmonella. CDC researchers have estimated that more than a million cases of salmonella poisoning in Americans can be directly tied to feed containing animal byproducts.
KF: What happens to the body when salmonella gets into the system?
MG: Within 12 to 72 hours of infection the fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps start. If the victim is lucky it’s over within a week. If not, the bacteria can burrow through the intestinal wall and infect the bloodstream, seeding its way to other organs, including the heart, bones and brain.
KF: Are there any long-term consequences from exposure?
MG: Thanks to salmonella infection one breakfast omelet can now trigger persistent irritable bowel syndrome and what’s called reactive arthritis, which can become a debilitating lifelong condition of swollen painful joints. Because salmonella can infect the ovaries of hens, eggs from infected birds can be laid prepackaged with the bacteria inside. According to research funded by the American Egg Board, salmonella can survive sunny-side-up, over-easy and scrambled egg cooking methods.
KF: Would free-range meat or eggs make a difference in preventing it?
MG: There is evidence that eggs from cage-free hens pose less of a threat. In the largest study of its kind (analyzing more than 30,000 samples taken from more than 5,000 operations across two dozen countries in Europe) cage-free barns had about 40 percent lower odds of harboring the egg-related strain of salmonella.
KF: Can we get salmonella just from touching something tainted?
MG: Absolutely. In fact the infective dose for salmonella is as few 15-20 bacteria, and a single egg can be infected with hundreds. It’s important to understand where the egg comes out. Eggs emerge from the hen’s vent, which is kind of a joint opening for both her vagina and anus, which explains the level of fecal contamination one can find on eggs.