Big Agro Draws Fire After Massive Egg Recall

Shouldn't stopping salmonella be easy?

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How did this many eggs get infected with salmonella? Following a massive egg recall, both casual and professional observers of American agriculture are taking a closer look at the details of the case. Something, they declare, is wrong with this system.

  • Where Was the Regulation? A New York Times editorial argues that though the producers are more directly to blame, "federal officials also must take the rap for moving too slowly to strengthen the country's food safety system." Coincidentally, "this outbreak occurred just as a strong new egg safety rule was finally being put into force." The new rule gets "high marks" but took "a full decade" to hash out and was only put into effect July 9. Here's what it says:
It requires producers to buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for salmonella; establish rodent and pest control and other measures to prevent the spread of bacteria throughout the farm; test their poultry houses for the bacterium; and if contamination is found, test samples of their eggs. If any of the egg tests is positive, the eggs must be treated to destroy the bacterium or diverted to non-food uses.
  • 'Preventing Salmonella Should Not Be Difficult,' agrees nutrition professor and food safety expert Marion Nestle at The Atlantic. The precautions being introduced "sound reasonable to me," she says, "but I care about not making people sick. ... I'm buying eggs at farmers' markets these days," she concludes grimly.
  • Particularly In This Case: The Offender Has a Record At environmental site Grist, Tom Philpott explains that Austin "Jack" DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg Productions, one of the two likely sources of the outbreak, is "one of the most reviled names in industrial agriculture." DeCoster has a history of running "highly polluting hog factories" and is a "'habitual offender' of water-quality laws." In addition, the company has a bad reputation regarding treatment of its workers, and settled a lawsuit against five illegal immigrants in 2002 who said they had been raped while working there. Writes Philpott:

The outrage here is not that Wright County Eggs has released nearly half a billion tainted eggs into the market, exposing untold numbers of people to sickness. DeCoster's record of abuse--of people and the environment--has taught anyone who's paying attention to expect such things from his operations. The outrage is that regulatory authorities at both the state and national levels have allowed him to continue hiring workers and producing food as violations piled up.

  • Evidence Against the 'Free Market' Argument "If the market would really take care of these problems, what is DeCoster still doing in business?" asks Salon's Francis Lam. "The fact of the matter is that in the market, plenty of producers aren't aiming for impeccable quality and lowest price; they're aiming at what they can get away with in a broken system of underfunded inspections and opacity to consumers." This is why regulation is necessary.
  • Options "This expansion of the regulatory state," writes Mark Mitchell at Front Porch Repubulic, "is really the only option when a) food production is centralized and therefore beyond the knowledge of nearly all who participate in the current food system, and b) when the first instinct of citizens is to look to the federal government to protect them from all harm." On the other hand, there is an alternative: decentralizing food production. That's also known as the farmer's market or local food solution.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.