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.
"There is a clear difference between farms that harvest 300 acres of a single crop in one day and put it into bags that have a shelf life of 16 days and small farms with 30 acres and 30 different crops that are hand harvested and locally sold in a day or two," Judith Redmond, co-owner of Fully Belly Farm, told me at the time.
Then she made a statement that the FDA, other government agencies, politicians, and public health advocates still fail to understand, or choose to ignore: "It's the industrial food system that created this problem. We didn't."
The most likely cause of the spinach outbreak appears to have been a herd of cows grazing near the field of spinach. But again, cows and vegetables have been raised in proximity for ages. Prewashed, bagged greens with shelf lives of three weeks are new. Many researchers credit the industrial food system with "inventing" the strain of E. coli that contaminated the spinach—it evolved in huge feedlots where cattle are fed an unnatural diet of corn, which caused changes in their digestive systems that allowed the new bacteria to flourish.
In a statement released last week, Karl Kastel and Will Fantel of the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for small, organic, family farms, point out that the contamination of the egg supply "can be directly linked to industrial producers that confine millions of birds, a product of massive, centralized breeding, in manure-rich henhouses, and feeding the birds a ration spiked with antibiotics."