The egg industry is still reeling after August and September’s recall of 550 million shell eggs potentially tainted with salmonella, and the industry might not be out of the woods yet.
As soon as the outbreak began, commentators and journalists began questioning whether cage-raised laying hens were more prone to salmonella infection than their cage-free and free-range counterparts. In a Sept. 2 column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof announced that the recall underscored “the failures of industrial farming” and pressed for an overhaul of the U.S. food production system.
Most consumers realize that the days of chasing chickens around the backyard have long since passed, but the benefits and drawbacks of our large-scale food production system are still up for debate. It’s a fact that the U.S. food production system is the safest in the world, but recalls like the recent one originating at Iowa’s Wright County Egg often serve to erode public confidence.
On Sept. 22, Jack DeCoster and his son Peter — the two men responsible for operating the farm at the center of the massive egg recall — testified before Congress. They apologized “to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs.” This apology may have come too little too late for the more than 1,600 people who became ill after eating the salmonella-tainted eggs. And when pressed by Iowa Representative Bruce Braley about the way that conditions at his facility and the resulting recall negatively affect producers across the egg industry — even those with no involvement with his farm — Jack DeCoster said, “I feel very bad about it, very bad. It's a horrible thing.”
DeCoster admitted to Congress that his operation got too big too fast, compromising his ability to safely operate the facility. But this problem has been evident for years, as DeCoster and his egg-laying business have been booted from state to state for repeatedly violating health, safety and sanitary standards. And while DeCoster may feel “very bad” about it, the negative impact of his business’ failings is still felt throughout the industry.
The conditions at Wright County Egg are the exception, not the rule. Most food producers take food safety and their responsibility for feeding the public seriously. In October’s Market Update, Food Manufacturing surveyed our readers about HACCP safety plans in their facilities. As part of this survey, we asked for feedback on what the industry needed in order to ensure a secure food supply.
We were overwhelmed by the responses we received, suggesting tightened regulation, more oversight, third party audits and constant improvement to equipment and processes. Despite an already strong commitment to HACCP and other food safety processes, our readers were eager to suggest additional tools to ensure the increased safety of the food supply, even though the implementation of those suggestions would clearly complicate their jobs and increase their responsibilities.
So, it’s unfortunate that one mismanaged facility like Wright County Egg can have such a resounding effect on the industry. While the research on salmonella transmission in caged versus cage-free birds seems inconclusive, what we can all agree on is that giant piles of manure pushing barn doors open to allow rodents access — like those found at the DeCosters’ farm — are a serious problem that compromises food safety.
There are many egg producers who raise their hens in cages while managing not to prompt a 550-million-egg recall. But the public often looks for systemic causes to unique problems, pinning blame on an entire industry when a single facility may be at fault.
Rep. Braley admitted during the DeCosters’ testimony that he learned of the egg recall while sitting down to breakfast and decided to order something other than eggs. One bad egg is often all it takes to indict an entire industry.