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Andrew Gunther Headshot

Food Safety We Need More Than a Band Aid

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As the egg recall fades, I took a look at exactly what went on? Reality is. has anything really changed is anything going to change? Or as I fear it will be buisiness as usual?

The more information that emerges from the results of investigations following the August 13 recall of eggs from Wright County Egg and Hillendale Farms in Iowa the more shocking the story gets. Knowing that recent research has shown a direct correlation between flock size and confinement and the presence of salmonella -- basically the bigger the flock and the more confined the greater the risk of infection. I initially thought this case was a prime example of the unintended consequence of industrialized food production. No-one set out to design a system that promotes disease -- they just wanted cheap food. However it is a biological fact that if you keep animals in large numbers in a confined environment then pests and diseases will inevitably spread more easily. You could say an "unintended consequence" of applying untested science to nature.

However; these particular egg production facilities -- I hesitate to call them 'farms' -- were not just intensive caged units with all the risks that entails. They turn out to be filthy, rodent infested facilities without even basic biosecurity measures. So, the system itself could promote Salmonella; and now we add to that the fact that the system isn't even being run to what might be our most basic expectations for a facility -- let's not forget -- that produces food.

The reports from the belated inspection by the FDA list a multitude of problems seem both at Wright County and Hillandale. Some if it seems scarcely believable -- house entrance doors blocked by manure piles that are noted as being up to eight foot high in some places; pigeons nesting in air vents inside the chicken houses, mice seen scurrying into multiple holes and refuges; live and dead flies; live and dead maggots "too numerous to count"; standing water and liquid manure relating to a water line leak "several weeks ago" and the list goes on.

Iowa, sadly, is reported as having the most lax regulations on egg farms of any state in the US. Between Wright County and Hillandale more than half a billion eggs have been recalled. The two producers have almost eight million hens. Despite the scale of this production and the fact that Wright County has been cited for numerous previous violations of food and animal safety standards the FDA had never inspected either farm before this outbreak of Salmonella.

Part of the problem with the industrial farming model is that big agribusiness puts consumer safety in the hands of very small group of producers -- leaving consumers vulnerable and with little recourse for alternative products. It's worth noting that Wright County Egg is owned by DeCoster "Family" Farms. One of the things we guard against at Animal Welfare Approved is the dishonest use of the term "family farm" or "family farmer." Jack DeCoster definitely does not meet the AWA definition of what constitutes a family farmer. He owns multiple facilities in multiple states and confines millions of hens. He's been cited numerous times as a repeat violator of environmental laws, he's been fined by OSHA for violations in the workplace, and he's been cited and fined for animal cruelty.

You don't allow rodents in your kitchen, but you are allowed to buy eggs from a producer who is on record as having them in their chicken houses. You wouldn't go out and buy a nicely sealed package with a skull and cross bones on it and keep it in your fridge to give to your children, would you? Why on earth are we accepting this product into our homes when we could be using sustainable, traceable systems that work with nature rather than unsuccessfully fighting against it?
Science tells us to eat eggs as a source of nutrition. That same science tells us that eating eggs from flocks kept outside truly on pasture based systems -- note I'm saying 'true pasture based' and not necessarily organic -- massively reduces our risk of any food borne illnesses.

I've read the statements that in order to protect ourselves against salmonella and, of course, E coli O157, we should boil and bake our pathogen laden food. I spent hours trying to find a recipe that recommended we add the yolks of an egg with salmonella with our flour. Obviously I didn't find any; I found words like fresh, wholesome. These kinds of comments abdicating primary responsibility put the onus on the consumer to take extra precautions against diseases that could otherwise be avoided by appropriately designed systems operated by professional farmers with a focus on welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Profit has a much broader definition than simply percentage return to the business producing the eggs.

Am I saying all eggs have salmonella in them? Absolutely not; many great farmers work to ensure safe food makes it to our tables. But the system the vast majority of us rely on for our food is broken and it needs more than just a band aid -- it needs major surgery. The reality is that, by their very nature, intensive farming systems are actually more likely to make animals and humans sick. I cannot think of any other business that would be allowed to continue to play that sort of Russian roulette with people's health and well being.

Animal Welfare Approved promotes pastoral sustainable farming.

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