Industrial Eggs, Industrial-Size Messes

Photo from StaraBlazkova.

When Labor Day weekend rolled around, you could almost hear Big Egg’s collective sigh of relief as attention shifted from Salmonella and rodent-infested poultry houses to end-of-summer barbecues and back-to-school sales.  I must admit, fair Ecocentrists, that even I allowed myself a brief respite from vigilant factory farm condemnation, forgoing publication of a hard-hitting analysis of industrial egg production to post an inspirational story about rooftop agriculture.  A little feel-good reading for the long weekend, you understand.  But now that my white pants have been carefully packed away for the season, it’s time to bust out the feel-bad material.

Nobody likes a massive outbreak of foodborne illness.  On the upside though, when 1,500 consumers are sickened by Salmonella and industrial processors are forced to recall more than half a billion eggs, people start to pay a bit more attention to how these things are being produced.

Of course, a little scrutiny reveals a pretty repulsive situation; at this point we've all heard about the abysmal conditions at the Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms facilities: wild birds flying throughout the barns and nesting in feed areas; escaped hens roaming freely; rodents, flies and maggots galore; feces everywhere; Salmonella festering all over…

Not surprisingly, the latest food safety debacle elicited a flurry of media coverage replete with authoritative statements from government officials, food activists and industry reps, along with the requisite Michael Pollan commentary.

Policy analysts lamented the shocking lack of regulatory oversight (prior to the Salmonella outbreak, no FDA inspections had been conducted at either egg facility) and demanded dramatic reform of the food safety system.  Animal welfare activists decried the inhumane living conditions characteristic of industrial poultry facilities, proposing a shift to non-industrial, cage-free production since farms with fewer birds have lower rates of Salmonella contamination.  Sustainable ag advocates noted the threat posed by the extreme consolidation of the egg industry (Wright and Hillandale distributed eggs across the US under more than 40 different brands) and touted the food safety/security benefits of decentralized, smaller-scale production.

And of course, the egg industry (along with the hacks at the Cato Institute) predictably insisted that there’s no cause for concern (hey, it’s only 1,500 illnesses and a 500,000,000-plus egg recall; quit whining and be thankful we don’t still have to deal with stuff like the bubonic plague!), and suggested that the onus of food safety assurance  be shifted to the consumer (Wash hands! Refrigerate below 45 degrees! Cook until whites and yolks are firm and consume immediately! Otherwise risk untimely death by foodborne illness that could've been prevented had we utilized "responsible animal husbandry practices" and followed a few "basic sanitary guidelines"!).

With the exception of the agribiz apologists' what’s-a-little-Salmonella-between-friends? reaction, I was glad to see these responses covered by the mainstream news media; as knowledge of factory farms trickles its way into the collective consciousness, it becomes easier to promote the much-needed overhaul of the US food system.  In fact, the event has already inspired a long-overdue effort to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act, which has been stalled in Congress for more than a year.

I wish though, that the public discourse induced by the egg recall wasn’t limited to Salmonella and facility inspections – these are significant issues to be sure, but in an important way, exclusive emphasis on the food safety system misses the point.  Indeed, the greater problem is the current model of industrial livestock production; too many animals are raised too close together by too few companies with too little oversight (on all fronts).

Even if the meat, eggs and dairy produced by factory farms are made completely safe for human consumption through stringent food safety regulation and rigorous government oversight (which won’t realistically happen anytime soon {or, even more realistically, probably anytime, period}), these industrial facilities will still wreak havoc on the environment, threaten human health, degrade rural communities and compromise animal welfare.  And by the way – this isn’t any sort of groundbreaking, revolutionary information; the ill effects of factory farms are well documented and have been tirelessly described by scientists, government agencies, food activists, sustainable ag proponents and family farmers for decades.  So yeah, we should certainly improve food safety standards to reduce the frequency of widespread outbreaks of foodborne illness – but if we want to effect meaningful change within the food system, we'll need to address the environmental, public health, socioeconomic and animal welfare impacts of industrial livestock production as well.