Bad Egg

By Corby Kummer
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The recent egg recall is a real-time example of everything that's wrong with our current food system. Well-meaning federal regulatory agencies hamstrung by outdated rules and limited authority? Market economics that practically mandate the use of illegal migrant workers who are helpless to fight abusive working conditions that approach and sometimes become slavery? Consumers who unwittingly play along by shopping on price alone?

It's all there—and, as Joe Fassler's gruesomely fascinating, newly reported timeline of shame shows—there's a wily tycoon at the center of it, always able to stay one step ahead of inspectors, regulators, and courts, crossing state lines to evade rules, flouting rules time after time even when he's caught outrageously breaking them. (For a cartoon-like graphic showing exactly how central DeCoster is and in many states, see this from this morning's Boston Globe, and the accompanying story about ongoing Congressional investigations of unseen ties between DeCoster and egg factories in Maine and Iowa.)

We all need the Food Safety Modernization Act to pass in the current legislative session! And there's not much time left.

That Jack DeCoster is a particularly clever and unstoppable figure out of "Chinatown" or, Fassler suggests, the age of the robber barons doesn't mean he's unique. As Barry Estabrook pithily pointed out and Josh Viertel echoes this morning, the real problem is the very centralization and industrialization of farming. It will inevitably give rise to colorful, relentless lawbreakers like DeCoster.

Only policies and national subsidies that allow small and mid-sized farms a fighting chance against industrially produced food, and national policies that strengthen regulators and prosecutors like the ingenious and dedicated ones in Maine Fassler documents, will stop moguls like DeCoster—and the many other faceless factories where Salmonella and slavery can quietly co-exist.

My own attention has been taken by the human-rights violations that have been reported and that Fassler's new timeline reinforces in repeated detail. And, as I wrote, I'm eager to see the FDA get the power it shockingly doesn't have to force mandatory recalls. We all need the Food Safety Modernization Act to pass in the current legislative session! And there's not much time left.

So, take your pick. Marion Nestle's is food safety, as she strongly reminds us here and in many other posts since the recall began. And don't miss Fassler's original, disturbingly readable timeline today.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/09/bad-egg/63087/