Egg recall shows (again) how broken our industrial-foods model has become

| August 23, 2010 | 17 Replies

How many times will it take for the consumer to wake up? Back in May, I wrote a post about the generally dismal state of regulation in matters of food safety, which allows large producers all the slack in the world at the expense of the consumer. I wish I could say that the state of affairs had changed dramatically in the meantime, but the current recall of over half a billion eggs reveals that nothing has changed.

Shopping for eggs in a grocery store. Image via Wikipedia (commons)

Let’s take a quick look at the history of Jack DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg, whose eggs are the first batch recalled. DeCoster is also an investor in Hillandale Farms (the company in the second recall), as well as supplying them with chicks and feed.  USA Today summarizes the chronic problems at operations run by DeCoster:

DeCoster is no stranger to controversy in his food and farm operations:

—In 1994, the state of Iowa assessed at least four separate penalties against DeCoster Farms for environmental violations, many of them involving hog waste.

—In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. The nation’s labor secretary at the time, Robert Reich, said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” Reich’s successor, Alexis Herman, called the state of the farms “simply atrocious,” citing unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.

—In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a “habitual violator” of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.

—In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.

—In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at six DeCoster egg farms. His farms had been the subject of at least three previous raids.

—In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.

So why do we let corporations get away with repeatedly and flagrantly violating the law at will? What does it take to put one of these habitual violators out of business? The  LA Times is reporting that Hillandale farms is also named in a class-action lawsuit which accuses several major egg producers of violations of the Sherman Anti-trust act. The suit alleges that Hillandale and others have been:

“conspiring to reduce egg output, and therefore drive up the price of eggs at the grocery store. According to the complaint, egg producers including Hillandale Farms and egg trade groups blamed rising consumer prices between 2004 and 2008 on the growing cost of chicken feed.

Instead, court documents allege, the producers and industry officials were actually covering up a conspiracy to delay or reduce chick hatching, manipulate the export of eggs to reduce domestic supply and kill off hens to reduce egg supplies in the U.S.”

Here’s a list of the various names under which the affected eggs are marketed under, which I have culled from the various news reports on the recalls:

  • Cal-Maine
  • Hillandale Farms
  • Sunny Farms
  • Sunny Meadow
  • Wholesome Farms
  • West Creek
  • Lucerne
  • Albertson’s
  • Mountain Dairy
  • Lund
  • Ralph’s
  • Sunshine
  • Trafficanda
  • Farm Fresh
  • Shoreland
  • Dutch Farms
  • Kemps
  • Boomsma’s

All those brands are supplied by these two giant egg producers. Over 1/2 a billion contaminated eggs, from just two producers. Through July 31st, these eggs may have sickened as many as 1,953 people, according to the CDC.

And just what is the advice from the FDA? Margaret Hamburg, head of the FDA, says consumers should avoid “runny egg yolks for mopping up with toast.” That’s her best advice? Here’s mine: abandon the broken industrial-foods model. It cannot guarantee that what you eat is safe, and increasing it does not even try. What’s worse, everyone realizes that the globalization and concentration of the food supply chain is to blame. For the current recall, USA Today reports:

To some experts, the huge recall of potentially contaminated eggs is a testament to how the industry has grown from many small producers to large industrial farms.

The problem, many food safety experts say, is that even as eggs moved to a very intense production method with enormous companies and huge flocks, regulation was almost entirely lacking.

“It’s a horrible story. It could have been prevented. Everybody knew it was a problem, and nobody was willing to take action,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of books on food safety and nutrition.

Similarly, in 2007 when the salmonella culprit was pot-pies from ConAgra, the New York Times reported (emphasis mine):

Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients. In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show.

Yet the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.

In addition to ConAgra, other food giants like Nestlé and the Blackstone Group, a New York firm that acquired the Swanson and Hungry-Man brands two years ago, concede that they cannot ensure the safety of items — from frozen vegetables to pizzas — and that they are shifting the burden to the consumer.

Do you understand what that means?  Tainted food is the new normal. And the FDA claims that they can fix the problem, if only they are granted more enforcement powers. But the existing powers seem to be sufficient to allow the FDA to stop the distribution of raw-milk, a food it is firmly against.

Image by adphoto81 at dreamstime (with permission)

Advocates of raw milk claim that its extremely healthy, while the FDA warns against it. I’m agnostic as to whether raw-milk is truly healthy or not, but just consider the zeal with which regulators are able to curtail its sale (see here also) :

With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts.

Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid’s target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.

“I still can’t believe they took our yogurt,” said Rawesome volunteer Sea J. Jones, a few days after the raid. “There’s a medical marijuana shop a couple miles away, and they’re raiding us because we’re selling raw dairy products?”

Why can’t the FDA raid ConAgra or Wright County Egg to check for salmonella infections?   Why don’t they? Again, from USA Today (emphasis mine):

In 1999, President Clinton vowed to increase regulation and wipe out the disease in eggs by 2010. Instead, the industry and FDA delayed the creation of the rules, finally written in 2004.

DeWaal says he doesn’t necessarily believe that large, production processors are the problem, “but you have to manage these systems tightly.” Until last month, that wasn’t being done, she says.

Prior to that, companies were not required to test for salmonella enteritidis. The new rule requires testing of layer houses, which can trigger mandatory egg testing. Infected eggs must be diverted to pathogen-killing treatments such as pasteurization.

Did you notice that? Until last month, producers were not even required to test for salmonella! And the FDA and industry cooperated to delay creation of the rules. The industry and the government have been working together to undermine food safety, in the name of profits. This is the same agency which is now insisting that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat,without doing any testing.  Why aren’t they testing?  Because they don’t expect to find anything, so why bother?  Well, I feel safe– but only because I buy my eggs direct from a farmer.  I look him in the eye every Saturday at our local farmer’s market, and I trust him.  He cares about the welfare of the chickens he raises, he cares about the food he grows, and he cares about a healthy product.  I’ll trust him more than “the industry” and the FDA any day, especially given the track record of each.  My farmer, Victor, is unable (and unwilling!) to sicken thousands of people around the country with salmonella.  He only has enough eggs to supply a certain number of people and still maintain his quality standards, which meant that he was sold out of eggs before we got to market this week at 8:30 a.m.  That’s OK, I’ll wait.

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Category: Current Events, Food, Health

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (17)

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  1. Janice says:

    Know what you're buying. Good post about reading eggs carton labeling.

    Cracking the Code
    http://gigabiting.com/?p=863

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    It's getting to be an old story, isn't it? Who's government is it? It's not yours and mine. Instead of calling them corporations, let's call them "clients" and let call ordinary citizens "mere citizens." Then everything makes more sense.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Yes, it's an old story in some ways. The great thing about it, as noted in this story from MSNBC is that it drives more and more people into farmer's markets, mirroring my own experience.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    David Kirby (journalist and author of the book Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms on Humans and the Environment) had this to say at Democracy Now!:

    "Well, these are the cheapest eggs on the market. The reason they are cheap is because they are mass-produced in these giant, often filthy factories, given substandard feed, in conditions that you would never raise a dog or any other animal. The drive for cheap food has a created a consolidated food production system that pushes out small and independent producers that tend to produce higher-quality food. Chickens that live in a sustainable farm produce eggs that are far less likely to be contaminated with something like salmonella than these big factories, which, as you mentioned, are basically allowed to police themselves. And we need much stricter not only regulations, but we need enforcement of the regulations. Right now we’re operating on the honor system. And this is food that we feed our families. This should be the most highly regulated industry."

    http://www.democracynow.org/2010/8/24/largest_egg

    David Kirby's website is http://animalfactorybook.com/ At his site, Kirby highlights these facts (and many others) regarding factory farming:

    ● US animal factories yield 100 times more waste than all US human sewage plants.

    ● Human sewage is treated to kill pathogens but animal waste is not. Hog manure has 10-to-100 times more pathogens than human waste.

    ● The law would never permit untreated human waste to be kept in vast “lagoons” or sprayed onto fields in the way that raw manure is applied.

  5. Brynn Jacobs says:

    To those who are paying attention to these sorts of things, food recalls from the industrial food system are a near-daily occurence. Here's today's:

    A subsidiary of Tyson Foods Inc. is recalling 380,000 pounds of deli meats that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

    Zemco Industries of Buffalo, N.Y., sold the deli meats to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., who made them into Marketside Grab and Go sandwiches, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service said.

  6. Devi says:

    I agree with everything you said, with one caveat. You said, "The industry and the government have been working together to undermine food safety, in the name of profits."

    I think that is mostly true, only a bigger and bigger problem is that there are simply not enough regulators. People are encouraged to believe that little government is the best government, but they don't understand it leaves them without any way to address problems like these. There are some things I simply can't do for myself, like test eggs for salmonella before I feed them to my family.

    Tea partiers, and people like them, rail against government waste. Is there government waste? Sure. And we should do all we can to curtail that. But the choice isn't to attempt to eliminate government and let the "free market" (not that it really is) control. Profit motives and greed just mean we'll be feeding babies melamine laced formula, giving children toys with lead in them, buying houses with lead paint and feeding our families foods infected with salmonella and e-coli. We need regulators, and it sure looks like we need more of them.

  7. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Devi-

    If the bigger and broader problem is a lack of regulators, as you suggest, then we must ask the question, “Why are there so few regulators?” There are precisely 0 Tea Party candidates in Congress right now, so the blame cannot be laid at their doorstep. The existing system has been consolidating and entrenching its power for decades, which is what I mean when I say that the industry and government have been cooperating to undermine (or at least ignore) food safety in the name of profits.

    The Washington Post reports that “Just 192 large egg companies own about 95 percent of laying hens in this country, down from 2,500 in 1987, according to United Egg Producers, an industry group.” Think of that, it’s really stunning: less than 200 companies are responsible for 95% of the eggs produced in this country. When something goes wrong with just one of those massive producers, it ripples throughout the food chain. But that’s not a failure of regulation, per se. It points to much deeper structural issues in our economic/political system which allow this sort of consolidation and concentration.

  8. John Swenson says:

    “Tea partiers, and people like them, rail against government waste. Is there government waste? Sure. And we should do all we can to curtail that. But the choice isn’t to attempt to eliminate government and let the “free market” (not that it really is) control. Profit motives and greed just mean we’ll be feeding babies melamine laced formula, giving children toys with lead in them, buying houses with lead paint and feeding our families foods infected with salmonella and e-coli. We need regulators, and it sure looks like we need more of them.”

    I would have to agree with this. Freedom is good. Too much freedom is disorderly and inept. As they say, who is going to watch the watcher?

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Each of the 37 ingredients in a Hostess Twinkie, photographed individually. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/38869408/ns/today-f

  10. Tim Hogan says:

    The information about the Twinkies is bad for me but, sooooooooooo good! Especially from the Hostess Discount store about a mile away!

  11. Brynn Jacobs says:

    The FDA has released their initial findings upon investigation of the egg farms responsible for the salmonella in this recall. See if you can stomach the findings:

    Reports released by the FDA show numerous violations at both farms, including rodent, bug and wild bird infestation, uncontained manure, holes in walls and other problems that could have caused the outbreak. Several positive samples of salmonella have been found at both farms.

    At Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa, chicken manure was heaped 4 to 8 feet high with the access doors forced open by the pile of manure, allowing “open access to wildlife or domesticated animals," the inspection reports noted.

    Among the observations of the investigators:

    — Live rodents and mice at both farms;

    — Structural damage and holes in many locations at both farms, allowing wildlife access;

    — Escaped chickens tracking manure through the houses;

    — Employees not changing clothing properly when moving from one location to another and not sanitizing equipment properly;

    — "Live flies too numerous to count" on egg belts, in the feed, on the eggs themselves at Wright County Egg;

    — Dead and live maggots "too numerous to count" on the manure pit floor in one location at Wright County Egg;

    — Nonchicken feathers in a laying house and wild birds flying in and out of two facilities at Wright County Egg;

    — Manure seeping through the foundation to the outside of laying houses in 13 locations at Wright County Egg;

    — Rusted holes in feed bins and birds flying over the feed bins at Wright County Egg

    Animal feces and access to wildlife are normally the main concern of investigators looking for causes of an outbreak, as illnesses such as salmonella originate from feces.

    FDA officials declined to say whether the conditions were typical of other egg producing plants in the U.S., saying only that the farms violated not only their own standards but new egg rules that took effect in July.

    Did you notice that at the end? "FDA officials declined to say whether the conditions were typical of other egg producing plants in the U.S." Wow.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn:

    Here's one of my Senators, Kit Bond, hard at work, responding to my letter of concern:

    Dear Mr. Vieth:

    Thank you for contacting me regarding food safety. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts with me.

    Like you, I support efforts to make our food system safe. A safe, dependable and affordable food supply has long been the standard in the United States. We must continue to use technology and science to meet new and emerging challenges.

    As Congress and the Administration work to improve our food safety system we must be mindful that any action taken must be based on sound science and avoid imposing overly-burdensome regulations on American farmers and ranchers. Given recent food recalls, many proposals are circulating in Washington to address health concerns and promote consumer confidence. I will keep your thoughts in mind as the legislative process moves forward.

    Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. If I may be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Sincerely,

    Christopher S. Bond

    United States Senator

    CSB:jb

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    You can't even trust "organic" eggs, according to this article in Mother Jones (based upon information provided by the non-profit Cornucopia):

    "Not necessarily, according to an eye-opening investigation by the Cornucopia Institute. Many so-called organic egg operations are just as grimly crowded as factory farms, and although the USDA requires outdoor access for laying hens whose eggs are labeled organic, Cornucopia found that at many farms, "outdoors" often consists of nothing more than a tiny concrete screen porch adjoining the tenement-like henhouse. Some of the organic egg producers even signed a letter to the National Organic Standards Board opposing the outdoor access rule."

    http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/09/eggs-s

  14. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich:

    Are you satisfied with the response from your senator? I see the regular Republican talking-points in his response, but not much else.

  15. Brynn Jacobs says:

    If you have the stomach for it, check out this link: http://gizmodo.com/5654066/chicken-nuggets-are-ma

    It shows you just what "mechanically separated chicken" looks like as it pours from the nozzles of some industrial food line.

    There's more: because it's crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color.

    Yum.

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