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Out of Control Egg Producer Flouts Regulations: Consumers Deal with 500 Million Salmonella-Tainted Eggs

This problem extends beyond the egg industry and is typical of nearly every sector of food and agriculture.

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On her blog, Nestle adds that "Salmonella in eggs never used to be a problem until we had industrial egg production that puts hundreds of thousands of hens in close (very close) proximity."

Salmonella first came on the Centers for Disease Control's radar as a problem in 1986. This should remind us that the way we produce food now, in enormous, consolidated animal factories, is new in the history of humanity and subject to new problems that humans haven't confronted before. While salmonella is not a new organism or a new problem, it's new within the past several decades to see salmonella outbreaks on such massive scales. Also new are the massive recalls that follow the outbreaks.

In addition to examining our regulations and blaming the outbreaks on "bad apples," let's take a look at two factors that make such outbreaks so commonplace: first, the "modern" way that eggs are produced; and second, the consolidation in agriculture that forces the majority of the country to obtain food produced by few producers. Nowadays, chickens -- highly complex social animals -- are reduced to nothing more than egg-laying machines. They spend their short, miserable lives in "battery cages," each with less space than a sheet of paper, unable to engage in normal behaviors like foraging for bugs, taking dust baths, nesting, or roosting at night. The cages are stacked one on top of another, with feces of those on top dropping onto those below. Hens lay fewer eggs when the days are shorter in the winter, so producers keep the lights on for long hours to ensure maximum egg production year round.

Because this environment produces a lot of stress -- which makes the chickens likely to peck one another, sometimes to death -- producers "debeak" the birds, cutting off the tips of their beaks so that pecking does not result in death and, thus, reduced egg production. Pooping, pecking, and even high rates of mortality in these conditions are seen merely as flaws in the machine, not indications that this system of production is itself flawed (not to mention cruel). Just like humans suffer from more disease when they live in the filthy, crowded conditions of a Medieval city, hens in this cramped environment are more prone to disease than hens kept in healthier, less cramped conditions. Is it any wonder why this production system increases the risk of foodborne illness?

Second, let's examine consolidation in agriculture. The sheer number of brands impacted by this recall shows how little choice consumers have. You can choose this brand, or that one, go to this grocery store, or the one across the street, but your eggs may still come from the same gigantic factory farm. How can consumers, given only the information of the brand name, the packaging and the price, knowledgeably choose the highest quality eggs, when none of that information actually tells where the eggs are from, how they were produced, and whether or not they are even safe?

This problem extends beyond the egg industry and characterizes nearly every sector of food and agriculture. In 2007, the top four beef packers controlled 83.5 percent of the market, the top four pork packers controlled 66 percent of the market, the top four companies in the broiler industry controlled 58.5 percent of the market, and the top four companies in the turkey industry controlled 55 percent of the market. Looking at where some of the most widely produced crops go once they are harvested, in 2007 the top three flour millers controlled 55 percent of the market and the top four soybean crushers controlled 80 percent of the market. This consolidation begins with seeds (in 2007, two companies sold 58 percent of all corn seeds) and ends at the grocery store, where the top five grocery chains controlled 48 percent of the market in 2005.

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