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The FDA has just posted the "483″ reports from inspectors who examined the Iowa egg factories responsible for the recent Salmonella outbreak and recalls. These, as The New York Times puts it, go into "nose-pinching detail."
I happen to have a strong stomach for these kinds of things, perhaps because I have had children. Birds, like babies, produce waste. Babies create some smelly sanitation issues. But tens of thousands of birds in one place create waste on an entirely different scale—for the birds themselves, for the workers who handle them, and for people who eat their eggs.
The FDA reports make interesting reading. The inspection violations at the Hillandale facility ranged from the seemingly trivial (unsigned forms) to the disturbing (rodent holes) to the alarming (leaky manure) to the utterly damning (egg wash water testing positive for Salmonella enteriditis).
The comments on the Wright Egg facility sometimes approach the poetic (these are direct quotes):
• Approximately two × six inch wood board was observed on the ground with approximately eight frogs living underneath.
• Layer 3 - House 8 had a bird's nest and birds were observed under the edges of metal siding on the south wall.
• The outside access door to the manure pits at these locations had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals.
• Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses.
• Uncaged birds (chickens having escaped) were observed in the egg laying operation ... The uncaged birds were using the manure, which was approximately eight feet high, to access the egg laying area.
• There were between two to five live mice observed inside the egg laying houses.
• Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed ... inside the egg laying houses.
• Birds were observed roosting and flying, chicks heard chirping in the storage and milling facility. In addition, nesting material was observed in the feed mill closed mixing system, ingredient storage and truck filling areas.
Take-home lesson: If you just have a few chickens, waste is not a problem. If you have millions of chickens in one place, you have a disaster in waiting.
Let's put concentration in the egg industry in some historical context. My partner, Dr. Malden Nesheim, trained originally as a poultry scientist. He points out that according to the USDA (a PDF of the relevant chart) about 450 egg facilities in the United States house more than 100,000 egg laying hens, and these account for nearly 80 percent of all egg production.
Just for fun, he looked up the figures in his 1966 textbook, Poultry Production (10th edition). A table in the first chapter lists more than 100,000 poultry farms in 1959.
The change may be more efficient, but it is certainly not healthier for anyone concerned.