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.
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:
- Hillandale Farms
- Sunny Farms
- Sunny Meadow
- Wholesome Farms
- West Creek
- Mountain Dairy
- Farm Fresh
- Dutch Farms
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.
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.