Where the Salmonella Really Came From

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It's been nearly one month since the nationwide recall of 550 million eggs, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still hasn't figured out where the salmonella that sickened 1,470 people originated.

Well, I know where it originated, and I am about to reveal it here, both to save the FDA further trouble and to warn the public that the food safety bill currently before the Senate (which may be fast-tracked as election-wary lawmakers return from their break) might not prevent future food contamination epidemics. In fact, it could even cause serious harm to conscientious farmers whose meat, poultry, and produce has never sickened anybody.

Huge farms and processors that ship their products across the nation have given us E. coli in ground beef and spinach, Salmonella in peanut butter and fresh salsa, and Listeria in processed chicken.

Put simply, the cause of the current salmonella outbreak is industrial-scale factory farming, which has also been the cause of virtually every instance of bacterial food contamination the country has experienced in recent years. Huge farms and processors that ship their products across the nation have given us E. coli in ground beef and spinach, Salmonella in peanut butter and fresh salsa, and Listeria in processed chicken. Scanning this list of food-borne illness outbreaks in the United States in the last 15 years, I can find only one instance, Listeria-tainted milk from Whitter Farms in Massachusetts, where a small, local operation sickened its customers.

FDA officials who examined the farms behind the current rash of egg-induced sicknesses were shocked to discover evidence of manure—along with rodents, flies, cats, and birds—in the facilities, which housed 7.7 million caged hens. I, too, maintain a flock of laying hens, although mine is only a dozen strong. My chickens sleep in an abandoned horse stable and spend their days running loose, pecking and scratching around the property. They are no strangers to manure, flies, cats, birds, and the occasional rodent. But my eggs have never sickened anyone. Hens have been living in proximity to insects, mice, and other wildlife for millennia. What is new are the huge facilities containing millions of caged birds that never see the light of day.

A few years ago I wrote an article for Gourmet magazine about agribusiness's reaction to the 2006 outbreak of E. coli in bagged, prewashed spinach that sickened hundreds of consumers in 26 states and killed three. The industry in California, where the contaminated spinach was grown, implemented a wide-reaching series of sanitation regulations geared toward packing plants that mill out greens by the ton. Smaller producers worried that they would not be able to afford to comply with rules made for factory conditions and drew attention to undisputed food-safety statistics that made Big Ag advocates extremely uncomfortable. Of 12 recorded instances of E. coli outbreaks attributed to California leafy greens since 1999, 10 had been attributed to mechanically harvested greens that were bagged in large production facilities. The source of two outbreaks remained undetermined. Precisely zero were linked to small farms selling to local markets.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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