Where the Salmonella Really Came From

Personal Health

It's been nearly one month since the nationwide recall of 550 million eggs, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still hasn't figured out where the salmonella that sickened 1,470 people originated.

Well, I know where it originated, and I am about to reveal it here, both to save the FDA further trouble and to warn the public that the food safety bill currently before the Senate (which may be fast-tracked as election-wary lawmakers return from their break) might not prevent future food contamination epidemics. In fact, it could even cause serious harm to conscientious farmers whose meat, poultry, and produce has never sickened anybody.

Put simply, the cause of the current salmonella outbreak is industrial-scale factory farming, which has also been the cause of virtually every instance of bacterial food contamination the country has experienced in recent years. Huge farms and processors that ship their products across the nation have given us E. coli in ground beef and spinach, Salmonella in peanut butter and fresh salsa, and Listeria in processed chicken. Scanning this list of food-borne illness outbreaks in the United States in the last 15 years, I can find only one instance, Listeria-tainted milk from Whitter Farms in Massachusetts, where a small, local operation sickened its customers.

FDA officials who examined the farms behind the current rash of egg-induced sicknesses were shocked to discover evidence of manure—along with rodents, flies, cats, and birds—in the facilities, which housed 7.7 million caged hens. I, too, maintain a flock of laying hens, although mine is only a dozen strong. My chickens sleep in an abandoned horse stable and spend their days running loose, pecking and scratching around the property. They are no strangers to manure, flies, cats, birds, and the occasional rodent. But my eggs have never sickened anyone. Hens have been living in proximity to insects, mice, and other wildlife for millennia. What is new are the huge facilities containing millions of caged birds that never see the light of day.

A few years ago I wrote an article for Gourmet magazine about agribusiness's reaction to the 2006 outbreak of E. coli in bagged, prewashed spinach that sickened hundreds of consumers in 26 states and killed three. The industry in California, where the contaminated spinach was grown, implemented a wide-reaching series of sanitation regulations geared toward packing plants that mill out greens by the ton. Smaller producers worried that they would not be able to afford to comply with rules made for factory conditions and drew attention to undisputed food-safety statistics that made Big Ag advocates extremely uncomfortable. Of 12 recorded instances of E. coli outbreaks attributed to California leafy greens since 1999, 10 had been attributed to mechanically harvested greens that were bagged in large production facilities. The source of two outbreaks remained undetermined. Precisely zero were linked to small farms selling to local markets.

"There is a clear difference between farms that harvest 300 acres of a single crop in one day and put it into bags that have a shelf life of 16 days and small farms with 30 acres and 30 different crops that are hand harvested and locally sold in a day or two," Judith Redmond, co-owner of Fully Belly Farm, told me at the time.

Then she made a statement that the FDA, other government agencies, politicians, and public health advocates still fail to understand, or choose to ignore: "It's the industrial food system that created this problem. We didn't."

The most likely cause of the spinach outbreak appears to have been a herd of cows grazing near the field of spinach. But again, cows and vegetables have been raised in proximity for ages. Prewashed, bagged greens with shelf lives of three weeks are new. Many researchers credit the industrial food system with "inventing" the strain of E. coli that contaminated the spinach—it evolved in huge feedlots where cattle are fed an unnatural diet of corn, which caused changes in their digestive systems that allowed the new bacteria to flourish.

In a statement released last week, Karl Kastel and Will Fantel of the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for small, organic, family farms, point out that the contamination of the egg supply "can be directly linked to industrial producers that confine millions of birds, a product of massive, centralized breeding, in manure-rich henhouses, and feeding the birds a ration spiked with antibiotics."

They fear that the safest farmers in the country, small, organic producers, could get swept up in the "dragnet" of the pending food safety bill because the proposed rules would disproportionately impose costs upon them. Already operating on slim margins (without the massive government subsidies available to huge agribusiness), some would be driven out of business. "When Congress returns to Washington, we have no doubt that food-safety legislation will get fast-tracked," Kastel and Fantel write. "In an election year, our politicians don't want to be left with egg on their face."

There is a way the Senators can have their (Salmonella-free) cake and eat it too: vote to include an amendment put forward by John Testor (D-MT), himself an organic farmer, to exempt small, local sellers from the regulations.

That way folks who like to get their food from huge factory farms will be less likely to be poisoned, and those of us who prefer to patronize the small producers who live near us—or even keep a half-dozen hens of our own—will still have sources for clean, safe produce and meat.

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