Contaminated eggs highlight for-profit practices

Contaminated eggs highlight for-profit practices
By Betsey Piette
Published Sep 1, 2010 7:28 PM

The outbreak of salmonella poisoning that sickened more than 1,500 people in the U.S. in August, forcing the recall of more than a half billion eggs, mandates a harder look at the combined impact of the monopolization of the poultry industry coupled with the critical lack of government oversight.

Salmonella causes fever, severe vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and can be fatal to the very young, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system. So far no deaths have been recorded from the current outbreak, but since only one in every 38 cases of salmonella generally gets counted in government statistics, the actual number of people impacted by the tainted eggs could be in the tens of thousands.

Outbreaks of salmonella poisoning are on the increase, sickening more than a million people in the U.S. every year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 81 million cases of food-related illnesses occur every year across the U.S., causing 9,000 deaths.

The cause of this latest food-related health crisis appears to be the practice of cramming hundreds of thousands of egg-laying hens into wire cages, so crowded that the birds are unable to even spread their wings. More than 95 percent of all U.S. eggs are currently coming from caged hens. Odds of salmonella contamination are around 50 percent less in cage-free hens and nearly nonexistent in free-range hens.

According to United Egg Producers, an industry trade organization, as of April there were 192 egg-producing companies with flocks of 75,000 hens or more. In 1987 there were around 2,500 operations. Currently, there are 58 egg-producing companies with over a million layers and 13 companies with greater than 5 million layers.

Crowded hens, tainted eggs

Despite long-standing industry denial of any connection between salmonella outbreaks and caging of laying hens, John Robbins reported that nine scientific studies on this issue in the past five years found increased salmonella rates in eggs coming from facilities that confine hens in cages. (Huffington Post, Aug. 27)

In a video exposing the horrors of caging hens produced by the Humane Society of the United States, Paul Shapiro comments, “This isn’t a case of a couple of rotten eggs; rather it’s a case of where standard industry practices are simply rotten.”

That the egg and poultry industries have been allowed to maximize profits by minimizing health and safety standards can be linked to the complicity of the federal Food and Drug Administration, which oversees shell egg production. With only 450 inspectors to visit over 156,000 sites, most operations have gone uninspected for decades.

Funding cuts that have halved the FDA’s food safety program over the last 10 years severely limit the agency’s ability to force companies to recall unsafe products. The FDA’s long-standing practice of allowing agribusiness to “voluntarily” comply with safety measures bears an eerie similarity to recent disasters in the oil and gas industry, where the drive to maximize profits by cost-cutting measures has spelled disaster for workers and their communities.

Even though the two Iowa companies that were responsible for the recent salmonella poisoning, Wright County Eggs and Hillandale Farms, had a long history of violations, the FDA never inspected these farms.

The Washington Post on Aug. 21 published a partial list of violations against Wright County Eggs’ owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster going back to 1996 when the Labor Department fined him $3.6 million for brutal conditions at his egg farm. DeCoster’s workers had been forced to live in trailers infested with rats and to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands at what then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich described as “an agricultural sweatshop.”

Environmental, labor violations

The Washington Post reported that DeCoster was also “charged by the state of Iowa for violating environmental laws because of manure runoff in rivers from his chicken and hog farm operations.” The Iowa Supreme Court later found DeCoster to be a “repeat violator” and forbid him to expand hog farming in the state.

It gets worse. In 2001, DeCoster Farms settled a $1.5 million complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when 11 undocumented Mexican women workers were raped and sexually assaulted by their supervisors. A year later the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined DeCoster $3.2 million in a lawsuit filed by Mexican workers over deplorable housing conditions.

The Ohio State Department of Agriculture revoked permits of Ohio Fresh Eggs in 2006 when it found this company failed to disclose DeCoster’s secret involvement in their operations to avoid a state background check on his Iowa violations.

Ohio Fresh Eggs, which has also incurred dozens of enforcement actions, up to seven in a single day, is co-owned by Orland Bethel, founder of Hillandale Farms, which recalled 170 million eggs in August. Hillandale Farms and Wright County Eggs purchase their chickens and feed through the same suppliers.

The recent egg recall has prompted the Obama administration to push for legislation that would require increased testing for contamination, but these regulations won’t take effect until 2012.

Public demand for safer food has led California and Michigan to pass laws phasing out the practice of caging hens. Robbins’ article in the Huffington Post notes that fast food companies, including Burger King, Subway and Wendy’s, and retailers including Wal-Mart and Trader Joe’s, are pledging to purchase or sell cage-free eggs. Hellmann’s mayo, which uses 350 million eggs a year, has announced they will go 100 percent cage free.

As long as the drive to maximize profits propels food production and not the desire to guarantee healthy and safe products, the age-old question of whether the chicken or egg came first gives ground to the modern-day dilemma of whether either are fit for human consumption.

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