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

The recent recall of 500 million eggs due to salmonella should surprise no one.

The official term agribusiness will use to refer to Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the owner of the farm that produced the tainted eggs, is "bad apple." That's what they call anyone who gets caught for outrageous ethical breaches in agriculture. Farmers who are caught abusing their animals and workers, committing flagrant environmental crimes, and selling record amounts of tainted food are all "bad apples." The implication is that everyone else, those who haven't made front-page headlines for their bad behavior, would never dream of doing such a thing on their farms.

The State of Iowa's term for DeCoster is "habitual violator." He earned the title a decade ago after repeatedly flooding Iowa's waterways with massive amounts of hog manure. In Iowa, habitual violators of water quality laws are fined up to $25,000 per day per violation (compared to the normal $5,000 per day per violation) and are not allowed to build or expand any "animal feeding operation structures." Apparently the increased fines weren't much of a deterrent for DeCoster.

DeCoster's violations of the law began long before he got to Iowa. By 1996, he had built his egg operation in Maine to one with five million hens producing 23 million eggs per week. And he had earned the attention of Clinton's Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, who said that DeCoster's workers were treated like "animals." The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined DeCoster $3.6 million after finding workers "handling manure and dead chickens with their bare hands, and living amid rats and cockroaches in the company's trailer park."

DeCoster continued, establishing operations to states with larger egg industries, Iowa and Ohio, and racking up legal violations. DeCoster's violations are varied, making it clear that he has little regard for any law that might stand between him and profit. Despite his lack of regard for the law, he was one of the largest donors opposing California's Proposition 2 in 2008, which requires that egg-laying hens are given enough space to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. Once Proposition 2 became law, would he bother following it anyway? Or would it become one more pesky fine to pay if and when he is caught?

Yet none of this led regulators to shut DeCoster down entirely. Nor did it lead businesses to avoid buying his eggs. The 500 million eggs were sold across the country under numerous brand names in at least 22 states: Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph's, Boomsma's, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms, Kemps, James Farms, Glenview, and Pacific Coast. The consequence of their negligence, to date, are at least 1,300 cases of salmonella, although authorities note that for each confirmed case, there are an estimated 30 to 38 more that go unreported.

How did salmonella get into the eggs? Thus far, all anyone knows is that the chicks came from a Minnesota firm certified to be free of salmonella. Some speculate that the source of salmonella could be the hens' feed. According to Marion Nestle, "If the problem was with the feed, the hens picked up salmonella from eating it. Once eaten, salmonella gets into the hens' digestive and egg tracts and gets deposited into the eggs."

Regardless of how it occurred, this recall should force us to examine the food system that allowed it to occur.

Eggs are actually highly regulated -- but none of the regulations, until recently, ensured that eggs were free of salmonella. One agency of the USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), grades shell eggs based on size and appearance; another agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates the health of the hens (but not the eggs); and yet a third agency, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), regulates the safety of liquid, dried and frozen egg products. The FDA, on the other hand, regulates the safety of shell eggs. A decade ago, the FDA began writing a rule to keep salmonella out of eggs, but never finalized it until last year. It went into effect July 9, 2010. The tainted eggs began to flood the market in May. Nestle says, "The FDA's shell egg rules ... would, if followed, have prevented this problem because the rules require testing the flocks. If they test positive, their eggs would have had to be diverted into some cooked product."

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.

Some, although not enough, is being done to address each of these problems. For starters, the House passed a food safety bill a year ago that would give the FDA the authority to force mandatory recalls of unsafe food (currently all recalls are voluntary, which is perhaps why the tainted eggs date back to May but we are talking about them in August). The Senate has yet to pass the same bill, but they plan to bring it to the floor for a vote in September. If it comes up for a vote, it will most likely pass easily.

Second, the Department of Justice is holding a series of five workshops around the county to examine consolidation in agriculture. The next one, held in Greeley, CO on Friday, August 27, will look at consolidation in the livestock industry. However, workshops alone are of little value if they do not result in meaningful reforms. The Department of Justice has not said what actions it plans to take following the workshops.

Third, Americans have taken measures into their own hands to call for more humane conditions for egg-laying hens. California's Prop 2, mentioned above, overwhelmingly passed in 2008, setting the stage for similar ballot initiatives in other states. In Ohio, the state with the second largest egg-laying industry (second to Iowa), preempted the passage of a measure similar to Prop 2, passing a ballot initiative last November that put industry in charge of a Livestock Care Standards Board. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) pushed to put a Prop 2-like measure on Ohio's 2010 ballot, and ultimately, industry and HSUS compromised, allowing existing battery cages for egg laying hens to stay, but banning any new ones.

Simultaneously, Americans across the country have begun raising small flocks of chickens in their backyards. In addition to providing eggs, chickens eat bugs and kitchen scraps and provide valuable manure. Because many cities forbid homeowners from keeping backyard chickens, more and more cities are overturning their old laws to allow backyard chickens. Recently, Cedar Rapids, IA, Memphis, TN, and Beaverton, OR became the newest cities to allow backyard chickens. Laws typically allow flocks of three to six hens but no roosters. Seattle, WA, which already allowed chickens, just changed its laws to allow a maximum of eight hens, compared to only three before.

While these small steps chip away at industrial agriculture, none of them do away with or fundamentally change the food system that provides the majority of Americans with their food. Some place their biggest hopes in changing the system of farm subsidies, which allows factory farms and grain processors to buy commodities like corn and soy below the cost of production. The next opportunity to do this is in 2012, when Congress debates the farm bill once again. However, unless the composition of the agriculture committees change substantially in both the House and the Senate after the next election, a major change is unlikely.


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