Reflections on “The High Cost of Eggs”

From a post on Nicholas Kristof’s “On the Ground” blog, in The New York Times:

Eggs at the Portland Market. Photo via Kimberly Hartke's blog, by Kthread on Flickr, CC license

“…As a kid who grew up on a farm and was very active in the FFA [Future Farmers of America], let me say right off the bat that the problem isn’t the typical farmers. It’s these industrial operations that turn farms into meat factories. For example, United Egg Producers (the egg lobby) says that there are now a dozen companies with more than 5 million laying hens. Those are to the family farm what Wal-Mart is to a Mom-and-Pop store. This kind of intensive concentration is also harmful for rural America, creating a kind of modern feudalism (small number of rich proprietors and large number of much poorer workers) that are the end of small town America….”

“….In the old days, salmonella often came from contamination on the outside of the egg. These days, egg washing has improved and that isn’t the problem. The problem is that the hen, who seems healthy, is infected with salmonella in her ovaries, and so the egg has salmonella inside the shell. This is what seems far more common today in industrial egg operations than in traditional farms. The Humane Society of the United States, in an extensive report called “Food Safety and Cage Egg Production,” suggests that in the 1940’s, salmonella sickened only a few hundred Americans a year and that its spread was caused by the rise of industrial farming. The report also suggests that the egg industry’s eradication of salmonella gallinarum (a kind that affects birds but not people) permitted the spread of salmonella enteritidis, the kind that affects humans but not birds — the kind in today’s outbreak.

United Egg Producers will push back of course. It will say that 1 death a week is nothing in a country as big as the United States, and that cheap food is what consumers want. It will argue that moving to cage-free production will significantly add to costs. In fact, the industry’s own estimate is that cage-free adds about 11.5 cents per dozen to costs, or a bit less than a penny per egg. My hunch is that that’s a price worth paying, especially if it means less salmonella. In fact, the industry has pushed back at other safety measures, such as vaccination of hens — and that’s why it’s in this mess….”

Then there’s also Nicholas Kristof’s main story on the subject, titled “Cleaning the Hen House“, from Thursday’s NY Times OpEd page:

“The latest salmonella outbreak, underscoring the failures of industrial farming, reminds me of the small chicken flock that I tended while growing up on a family farm.

Our chickens wandered freely, and one dawn we were awakened by frantic squawking. We looked out the window to see a fox rushing off with a hen in its mouth.

My father grabbed his .308 rifle and blasted out the window twice in the general direction of the fox. Frightened, it dropped the hen. Yet the hen, astonishingly, was still alive. She picked herself up, spun around dizzily a couple of times, and staggered back to the barn.

A month later, my aunt visited our farm with her Irish setter, Toby, who was always eager to please but a bit dimwitted. We chatted and forgot about Toby — until he bounded up proudly to show a chicken he had retrieved for us.

It was the very same hen that had survived the fox. We shouted, and Toby sadly dropped the bird. She ruffled her feathers, glared at the dog, and then stalked off while clucking indignantly.

Perhaps that hen might have been ready to choose a cage over the perils of canines on the range, and, obviously, my family’s model of chicken-farming was horrendously inefficient and no model for the future. But the other extreme of jamming chickens into small cages is a nightmare for the animals — and the salmonella outbreak underscores that it can be a health hazard to humans as well.

Inspections of Iowa poultry farms linked to the salmonella outbreak have prompted headlines about infestations with maggots and rodents. But the larger truth is: industrial agriculture is itself unhealthy.

Repeated studies have found that cramming hens into small cages results in more eggs with salmonella than in cage-free operations. As a trade journal, World Poultry,acknowledged in May: “salmonella thrives in cage housing.”

Industrial operations — essentially factories of meat and eggs — excel at manufacturing cheap food for the supermarket. But there is evidence that this model is economically viable only because it passes on health costs to the public — in the form of occasional salmonella, antibiotic-resistant diseases, polluted waters, food poisoning and possibly certain cancers. That’s why the president’s cancer panel this year recommended that consumers turn to organic food if possible — a stunning condemnation of our food system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in 2005 suggesting that in 2000 there were about 182,000 cases of egg-caused salmonella in the United States, including 70 deaths. That means that even without an outbreak in the news, eggs with salmonella kill more than one American a week….”

Read that whole article on the NY Times website. (may require free signup)

Contrast Nicholas Kristof’s reading of the problem with Marion Nestle’s on her alternative-sounding “Food Politics” blog:

“…It’s hard to know where to begin, but the take home lessons seem obvious:

  • Industrial egg operations have gotten out of hand in size, waste, and lack of safety.
  • Immigration issues are very much involved.  If places like this are going to hire immigrants to work in them, we need to protect the rights of those workers.
  • The Senate needs to pass the food safety bill and enable the FDA to do more inspecting.  The accompanying New York Times editorial emphasizes that point.

Today’s New York Times editorial says it all again:

It wasn’t simply that the operation is out of scale with the Iowa landscape. It is out of scale with any landscape, except perhaps the industrial districts of Los Angeles County. What shocked me most was the thought that this is where the logic of industrial farming gets us. Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror — a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.

I’m hoping some good will come of all this.  Maybe this is our version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking book that got Congress to act immediately to pass the Food and Drug Act that governs our food safety system to this day. The Senate has been sitting on S.510 for more than a year. For shame!”

Read it all here on Food Politics blog.

Of course the big difference between Nicholas and Marion, is that Marion is using this crisis situation to promote the S.510 food safety bill which is before the senate and which those who have done their homework know by now is NOT about bringing factory farms to heel but instead making it tougher for the little guy who’s not been causing these kind of problems in the first place.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Reflections on “The High Cost of Eggs”

  1. Paul

    For more info on why the United Egg Producers shouldn’t be trusted on animal welfare issues:

    http://www.humanesociety.org/uep

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