Egg Industry Faces New Scrutiny After Outbreak
By ERIK ECKHOLM
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.