When I speak to groups of people, I urge them to get to know the story behind their food—and to make sure that story is one they can be proud of. Last month's recall of nearly a half a billion eggs has pulled back the curtain on industrial egg production, and shown many Americans the story they never knew about how eggs get onto their plates. It's not a story eaters can be proud of. Nor is it one the farmer can be proud of. Nor is it one our food regulatory agencies can be proud of.
In fact, there are so many unpleasant realities in this story that we still don't know exactly which elements contributed to the presence of Salmonella—cramped cages, mouse droppings, dead insects, chicken feed containing chicken bone meal. [Editor's note: See Joe Fassler's timeline of violations on DeCoster egg farms in Maine.] But it's not just a story about eggs, of course.
Over the past year, the USDA and the Department of Justice have been holding antitrust workshops all over the country, examining how consolidation is affecting our agricultural system. They have listened to hog farmers, cattle producers, and dairy farmers in an attempt to understand what this means for small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers, and what this ultimately means for the consumer.
When half a billion eggs get recalled, consumers are rightfully scared and wonder what their alternatives are. For most people, there isn't one. If only a handful of companies control the majority of the market, it means that when disease strikes, and spreads, there aren't many places to turn. People in all 50 states eat eggs, but 50 percent of our eggs are produced in only five states. The same week that the egg recall was announced, there was a beef recall. And we all remember recent widespread spinach and peanut recalls.
In each story there have been similar narrative elements: large companies trying to get away with as much as they can, even if it means selling consumers product they know is contaminated; ineffective communication about violations between FDA and USDA; repeated bad actors allowed to stay in business; rapid and far-reaching spread of the product, making it challenging to recall all of it effectively; sick consumers and sometimes, tragically, dead ones.
The Department of Justice is starting to learn the story, and consumers are starting to learn too. The next step will be for government and individuals alike to demand a system that respects farmers, respects the environment, and respects the health and safety of consumers. A great starting point is communication—let's demand that the FDA and the USDA talk to each other to make sure that bad actors are held accountable and forced to clean up their act before contaminated food makes its way to our tables.
Watch Slow Food USA's newly released "The Story Behind Your Food" video: