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As it reeled from the recall of half a billion eggs for possible salmonella infection, the American egg industry was already battling a movement to outlaw its methods as cruel and unsafe, and adapting to the Obama administration’s drive to bolster health rules and inspections.
The cause of the infections at two giant farms in Iowa has not been pinpointed, Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said Monday in a television interview. But “there is no question that these farms that are involved in the recall were not operating with the standards of practice that we consider responsible,” Ms. Hamburg said in the strongest official indication yet that lax procedures may be to blame.
One of those producers, Wright County Egg, responded that it “strives to operate our farms in the most responsible manner, and our management team has worked closely with F.D.A. through their review of our farms.”
The company, which has also been cited for farm-labor and animal cruelty violations in the past, said that “any concerns raised verbally during F.D.A.’s on-farm visit were immediately addressed or are in the process of being addressed.”
The other farm under intense scrutiny is Hillandale Farms.
Federal officials have not questioned the intensive methods that have produced cheap eggs and meat but that some criticize as cruel and bad for the environment and public health.
Animal rights advocates, who have campaigned to end the housing of hens in tiers of cages, were quick to seize on the recall. “Confining birds in cages means increased salmonella infection in the birds, their eggs and the consumers of caged eggs,” the Humane Society of the United States wrote last week in a letter to Iowa egg producers.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals used the recall to press its case for vegan diets, sending an e-mail on Sunday to two million followers that said “half a billion eggs recalled and counting — each egg represents 34 hours of total hell for a hen,” a reference to the average time between egg output. Recipients were asked to urge their friends to view videos starring Paul McCartney and Alec Baldwin that decry the cruelties of egg production.
But the link between cage farming and disease is not so clear, say many academic and government experts who add that some aspects of cage production, which prevents birds from wallowing in their droppings, may be safer than letting hens run loose.
“Some groups tend to cherry-pick studies to show the results that they want consumers to see,” said Jeffrey D. Armstrong, dean of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University.
“The bottom line is we don’t know” whether caged or cage-free production is safer, Mr. Armstrong said.
By any historical measure, American egg production is efficient and comparatively safe. The current recall is the largest in memory, but involves only a small fraction of the 70 billion eggs produced annually, mostly by hens who spend their lives with six or seven others in cages the size of an open newspaper, their droppings carried away by one conveyer belt while the eggs are whisked off by another.
Modern egg farms take elaborate steps to keep germs out of barns. But the persistence of salmonella in eggs has been a major concern of health agencies.
The problem of salmonella on eggshells was largely solved in the 1970s, when regulations required the washing and inspection of eggs. In the 1980s, a more insidious threat was recognized: infected hens passing the pathogen to eggs still in formation.
One challenge is the size of farms and flocks today. A single barn may house more than 150,000 birds in tight proximity, allowing infections to spread quickly and widely.
In July, the F.D.A. started requiring large farms to improve refrigeration and do more disease testing, steps it said would reduce salmonella infections by more than half.
Critics still say the cages producing 95 percent of American eggs will remain more dangerous than alternatives.
“The latest science and the best science very clearly show elevated risk in caged facilities,” said Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States, who contested the assertion that he was “cherry-picking” the evidence.
Some experts say the science Dr. Greger cites does not clinch his case, in part because many of the studies, which were mainly done in Europe, compared older, more vulnerable caged facilities with new cage-free barns. One expert review this summer said the evidence was inconclusive.
Egg producers have watched in dismay as the political winds seemed to turn, largely because of growing concern about animal rights. The European Union will bar small cages for egg hens as of 2012. By public referendum, California will ban small cages in 2015, and the state will not allow the sale of eggs produced that way in other states. Michigan, Ohio and other states have placed limits on future caging of hens.
William Neuman contributed reporting.
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SAN FRANCISCO — In the Mojave Desert, solar developers are scrambling to secure permits to build vast expanses of new generating capacity. But they are discovering that cost and carbon emissions are not the only limiting factors in new energy decisions in California. They are bumping up against water scarcity.
In the United States, thermoelectric power generation — mainly coal, nuclear and natural gas — accounted for 41 percent of U.S. freshwater withdrawals in 2005, U.S. Geological Society data show.
“Typically, project developers have wanted to use water for cooling because it’s more efficient and capital costs are less,” said Terry O’Brien, the California Energy Commission’s deputy director for power plant licensing. “That makes the project more economic.”
But there is a growing awareness in California and throughout the United States that the use of water for energy generation may be reaching its limits.
California has extensive experience with water shortages, resulting in its adoption of a policy, included in the energy commission’s 2003 Integrated Energy Policy Report, that discourages freshwater use for power plant cooling. The commission’s regularly updated reports provide current data and set the parameters for state energy and conservation policies.
“It’s just not possible anymore in California, and increasingly anywhere, to find unlimited water for the old water-intensive cooling systems,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, which researches water issues and advises on policy. “If you want to build a big central power plant, whether it’s oil, gas or nuclear, you can’t take the water for granted.”
In the past decade, water availability has increasingly had an effect on the reliability of power supplies in many countries, with droughts leading to temporary closings of nuclear plants in Australia, France, Germany, Romania and Spain. Similar shutdowns have been threatened in the United States.
For a thermoelectric plant, the cooling technology used is the biggest factor in its water needs.
Once-through cooling, an inexpensive, energy-efficient and therefore widely used process, sucks up huge quantities of river, lake, or sea water. A typical 500-megawatt power plant takes in almost 19 million gallons, or 72 million liters, an hour, according to a 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Energy.
After running through the plant, almost all of this is returned to the river, lake or ocean. The used water, however, may be polluted, and the heat that it has absorbed can be lethal to fish, while the intake can kill wildlife and microorganisms. Research of the environmental consequences has led to tighter regulations in recent years, making it nearly impossible to get permits for new plants using once-through cooling anywhere in the United States.
The California state water board, going further, adopted rules this month tightening environmental protection requirements for existing coastal once-through plants — a step toward phasing out the technology at 19 plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating whether to follow California’s lead.
As once-through cooling has fallen out of favor, wet cooling, which exploits the chilling effect of evaporation, has become more common. It uses only about 3 percent of the water needed for once-through cooling — but it loses 90 percent of that to vapor. Wet-cooling systems are more expensive to build than once-through and consume as much as 3 percent of the energy generated by the plant. But a point in their favor is that they can use non-freshwater sources, like wastewater or mine pools.
Recent government data show that 56 percent of U.S. thermoelectric generating capacity is now wet-cooled, against 43 percent using once-through systems.
A newer process, dry cooling, which uses fans to push waste heat into the atmosphere instead of into water, is still more expensive and less efficient. On hot days, as much as 15 percent of the energy generated by a plant may be expended on cooling, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a research body funded by the energy industry.
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The sort of cooling technology used has more of an effect on water consumption than the type of thermal generating technology, said Kent Zammit, senior program manager for the research body. “Any of these technologies — nuclear, coal, natural gas, solar thermal and biomass — will have roughly comparable water requirements for cooling.”
But for non-thermoelectric renewable energy, various technologies have very different water footprints, said Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel, project director for River Network, a water conservation organization. Hydropower, for example, causes large-scale water losses, mainly due to evaporation from the increased water surface area behind the dam.
And then there is the example of corn ethanol, which is used as a transportation fuel. “The biggest example of complete ignorance of water consumption is the big biofuels mandate,” Mr. Griffiths-Sattenspiel said. “It wasn’t until after it passed that people really started looking at it and considering the consequences of it. If we were to replace gasoline with biofuels, we’d be looking at a 2- to 200-times increase in water consumption for energy-related fuels,” depending on crop irrigation intensity.
Dr. Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, said: “The best alternatives from a water perspective are wind and photovoltaics, that require effectively no water. If the only thing we cared about was carbon, the problem of climate change, we would move toward nuclear and renewables. But we also have to think about water.”
Photovoltaics consume some water in manufacturing. But no one has published comparative full-cycle data on the water used in manufacturing, operating and decommissioning the various energy generating technologies.
Dr. Gleick, who has done some preliminary research, said: “The biggest water inputs come not in the manufacturing of the energy system but in the operation of the plants themselves. There’s water required to make photovoltaics, but there’s also water required to make the steel that goes into power plants, and the difference is not all that significant compared to the 30 years of operations.”
Despite the growing attention paid to water consumption, comparative costs still mainly determine construction choices. Costs, and cost estimates, vary widely and are highly sensitive to variable inputs such as raw materials, fuel and labor prices. But a study published by the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration in December gave a sense of the playing field.
Estimating the “levelized” full lifecycle cost of power generation at new plants to begin operations in 2016, the study put the cost at $100.40 per megawatt-hour for a conventional coal-fired plant; $83.10 for a conventional combined-cycle natural gas plant; $119 for nuclear; $111 for biomass; $149.30 for wind; $256.60 for solar thermal; and $396.10 for solar photovoltaic. These costs exclude potential liability for external risks such as pollution clean-up, or fines.
Nevertheless, California’s policy of discouraging the use of freshwater for power plant cooling is having an effect on that state’s power infrastructure.
Mr. O’Brien, of the energy commission, said developers were still driven by economics. “But in California we’ve sent a strong signal to power plant developers through the 2003 Integrated Energy Policy Report on water,” he said, “and we’ve seen a major change in the projects that are being proposed because of that.”
The policy has affected the developers looking to build solar thermal plants in the Mojave. “We have three applications in-house for a solar-trough technology from Solar Millennium, and they made the decision to go to dry cooling before they filed with us,” he said. Solar troughs use arrays of long parabolic mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on oil-filled pipes that capture the heat.
The solar industry is young and innovative, but it is not alone in looking for ways to reduce water requirements.
“Many natural-gas-fired power plants that the commission has approved have used reclaimed water in lieu of using freshwater,” Mr. O’Brien said, referring to water recycled from waste treatment facilities. “A few of those projects have also been dry cooled. Clearly, that’s in response to water availability issues.”
Mr. Zammit, of the Electric Power Research Institute, concurs that the availability of water, not its cost, is the limiting factor. “The cost of the water may not be that expensive, but it may be very expensive if your plant is delayed or you never can build it because of water concerns,” he said.
Water limitations are now affecting even historically wet regions, like the southeastern United States. “Ten years ago, did anyone in Georgia think that water availability would constrain their growth and development?” Dr. Gleick said. “No. But that’s certainly what’s happening today.”
The latest action — the third recall announcement in two weeks for eggs — is bound to shake the confidence of consumers rattled by a succession of food safety scares in recent years, most prominently for foods like beef and lettuce.
The idea that half a billion suspect eggs have been circulating in the food supply comes as an embarrassment for the egg industry and federal regulators. New egg safety rules went into effect in July that the Food and Drug Administration had said would prevent tens of thousands of salmonella illnesses a year.
“You have to treat eggs with the assumption that they’re contaminated with salmonella,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, a food safety expert of the Consumer Federation of America. “We may all object to the fact that we have to treat food like toxic waste, but if we don’t want to get sick, and especially if you have someone in your house that’s immune-suppressed, you have to handle things carefully and demand that the standards be set higher.”
Hillandale Farms, one of the nation’s largest egg companies, said it was recalling eggs produced at two Iowa sites, in some cases as far back as April.
It follows an even larger recall by Wright County Egg, also of Iowa, which recalled 228 million eggs on August 13, and then expanded its recall by an additional 150 million eggs on Wednesday.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases of salmonella since May have been linked to tainted eggs, according to federal health officials. Investigators are continuing to look at the clusters of illness to see whether any other egg producers might be linked to the outbreak.
Investigators are also looking at ties between the two egg farms operated in Iowa by Hillandale and the five farms run by Wright County Egg, which is owned by the DeCoster family, a major egg producer.
“Hillandale Farms of Iowa and Wright County Egg Farm share a number of common suppliers because they are in the same industry in the same state,” Hillandale said in a statement late Friday. The company said that it bought young birds, called pullets, and feed from a company run by the DeCosters.
F.D.A. officials said the chicks used by both farms came from a hatchery that participated in a national program meant to ensure that its chicks were free of salmonella infection.
Chickens can get salmonella from rodents in hen houses, from contaminated feed or from workers who may not follow sanitary procedures. Infected hens can lay eggs with the bacteria inside them, and people can become sick if they eat tainted eggs that are not fully cooked.
Health experts say that people should make sure that they cook eggs fully to destroy any possible bacteria and wash their hands and utensils after handling raw eggs.
Salmonella commonly results in diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. In rare cases, it can lead to more serious conditions, like arterial infections.
Even though the recall numbers are large, they represent a small fraction of national egg production. The recalled eggs have also been produced over several months, meaning that most have long since been cooked and eaten.
The recalls at both companies stem from a single large outbreak of salmonella.
Sherri McGarry, a director at the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said federal and state officials were working hard “to get contaminated product off the market so consumers are protected and public health is protected.”
She said the Hillandale recall was prompted when Minnesota officials traced a cluster of illnesses in that state to the eggs from the company’s Iowa plants.
Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota health department, said seven people had become ill with salmonella in mid-May after eating chile rellenos at a Mexican restaurant called Mi Rancho in Bemidji, Minn. He said that investigators established a connection to Hillandale eggs on May 24.
It was not clear why the F.D.A. did not act on the information sooner.
The Wright County eggs have been distributed nationwide. The Hillandale eggs went to 14 states, according to the company: Arkansas, California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin. They were sold under the brand names Hillandale Farms, Sunny Farms, Sunny Meadow, Wholesome Farms and Werst Creek.
Hillandale also operates plants outside Iowa, but those plants were not included in the recall. One complication for consumers is that some of the Wright County firm’s eggs were sold in cartons bearing the Hillandale name.
The outbreak and the recalls, both by far the biggest in years, have stunned the egg industry. “Now, all of a sudden, we’ve got this big one going on,” said Howard Magwire, vice president of United Egg Producers, an industry organization. “Something happened here that shouldn’t have happened.”
Darrell Trampel, a poultry veterinarian at Iowa State University, said that the problem should not be viewed as something unique to Iowa.
“The production methods for large commercial egg operations are very, very similar all across the United States,” he said. “It’s just that Iowa is the biggest egg-producing state in the nation by a large margin. The probability of things happening here is greater because we have more chickens.”
In a separate notice Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued an urgent recall of a type of frozen fruit pulp sold under the La Nuestra and Goya brands.
The pulp, made of the tropical fruit mamey and originating in Guatemala, has been linked to an outbreak of typhoid fever that has sickened nine people in California and Nevada, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
A dangerous new mutation that makes some bacteria resistant to almost all antibiotics has become increasingly common in India and Pakistan and is being found in patients in Britain and the United States who got medical care in those countries, according to new studies.
Experts in antibiotic resistance called the gene mutation, named NDM-1, “worrying” and “ominous,” and they said they feared it would spread globally.
But they also put it in perspective: there are numerous strains of antibiotic-resistant germs, and although they have killed many patients in hospitals and nursing homes, none have yet lived up to the “superbug” and “flesh-eating bacteria” hyperbole that greets the discovery of each new one.
(MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, is a hard-to-treat bacterium that used to cause problems only in hospitals but is now found in gyms, prisons and nurseries, and is occasionally picked up by healthy people through cuts and scrapes.)
Bacteria with the NDM-1 gene are resistant even to the antibiotics called carbapenems, used as a last resort when common antibiotics have failed. The mutation has been found in E. coli and in Klebsiella pneumoniae, a frequent culprit in respiratory and urinary infections.
“I would not like to be working at a hospital where this was introduced,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “It could take months before you got rid of it, and treating individual patients with it could be very difficult.”
A study tracking the spread of the mutation from India and Pakistan to Britain was published online on Tuesday in the journal Lancet.
In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted the first three cases of NDM-1 resistance in this country and advised doctors to watch for it in patients who had received medical care in South Asia. The initials stand for New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase.
“Medical tourism” to India for many surgeries — cosmetic, dental and even organ transplants — is becoming more common as experienced surgeons and first-class hospitals offer care at a fraction of Western prices. Tourists and people visiting family are also sometimes hospitalized. The Lancet researchers found dozens of samples of bacteria with the NDM-1 resistance gene in two Indian cities they surveyed, which they said “suggests a serious problem.”
Also worrying was that the gene was found on plasmids — bits of mobile DNA that can jump easily from one bacteria strain to another. And it is found in gram-negative bacteria, for which not many new antibiotics are being developed. (MRSA, by contrast, is a gram-positive bacteria, and there are more drug candidates in the works.)
Dr. Alexander J. Kallen, an expert in antibiotic resistance at the C.D.C., called it “one of a number of very serious bugs we’re tracking.”
But he noted that a decade ago, New York City hospitals were the epicenter of infections with other bacteria resistant to carbapenem antibiotics. Those bacteria, which had a different mutation, were troubling, but did not explode into a public health emergency.
Drug-resistant bacteria like those with the NDM-1 mutation are usually a bigger threat in hospitals, where many patients are on broad-spectrum antibiotics that wipe out the normal bacteria that can hold antibiotic-resistant ones in check.
Also, hospital patients generally have weaker immune systems and more wounds to infect, and are examined with more scopes and catheters that can let bacteria in.