About That Egg Recall
re-printed with permission from author, Jill Richardson
I was just on On Point on NPR. As the show ended, I had a few last points I wanted to make but couldn't. So I will make them here.
We had the owner of a very large egg farm on the show, a man who I have no doubt is a wonderful, ethical person who is doing absolutely the best he can to produce quality, safe eggs. And he was making the point that there's nothing wrong with industry consolidation and with one farm having 6 million chickens.
Another guest was Caroline Smith DeWaal of Center for Science in the Public Interest, who spoke about the long delay in getting food safety regulation in place, as well as some of the confusion between having food safety regulated between different federal departments and agencies.
Well, no pun intended, but this is a "chicken and egg" problem. When you have this kind of consolidation with these huge farms, you also have a class of producers who can afford to influence Washington - and influence they do. So then their industries are not well regulated. In this case, you've got food safety split between departments, which is by design - it makes the regulators less efficient. FDA is chronically underfunded. That's by design too.
This isn't just with eggs, it's with all food. And that brings me to another point. One caller brought up vegan diets as a way to avoid eggs. But how about a way to avoid food? Vegans eat too, and the foods they eat also come from highly consolidated industries controlled by relatively few companies with lots of political power.
A very telling example of the problem comes from arsenic pesticides. These were popular after the Civil War until around the 1930's. At that point, food poisoning cases mounted up and many, if not most, Americans suffered from mild to severe symptoms of arsenic poisoning. In the 1950's, DDT came in to mostly replace arsenicals. The other day I looked to see when arsenicals were finally banned. The answer: they weren't. The EPA tried to have a go at banning many of the remaining legal arsenicals in 2006, and by 2009, the cotton industry had successfully lobbied them to continue allowing one of the pesticides they wanted to ban.
Some chemicals are banned. Some industry practices are banned. Some food safety procedures are in place. But until we stop this running game where the regulators are constantly behind industry because industry is lobbying government, we're still doing a lot of harm to ourselves and our environment. It's nice to ban one pesticide, but what's the use if a new toxic pesticide takes its place. It's great to put in place procedures to prevent salmonella outbreaks, but what food safety problem will happen next?
As for the question of producing safe eggs on large farms, I have no reason to assume that Stephen Herbruck, the farmer on the show, wasn't telling the truth that his eggs are safe. They likely are. But are they as healthy as possible? And what's the environmental impact of his model of business? I don't mean to target him - he seemed like a wonderful person - but there is a consequence in flavor, in health, and in environmental impact to the way we produce our food right now.
When I was in Cuba, where most food is produced sustainably on relatively small farms and then sold locally, a Cuban told me she thought eggs from the U.S. "taste like plastic." A chicken in a backyard flock provides fertilizer and eggs, and does so while disposing of bugs and kitchen scraps, thus reducing the amount of commercially grown food the chicken needs to eat. And, according to tests by Mother Earth News, these eggs will be quantifiably healthier than those you buy at the store. Is just having safe food the only standard you want, or do you want healthy, tasty food too?
Also, I have one last point. There was some talk that "you get what you pay for" and consumers want cheap eggs so they are getting them. Well, a look at historical egg prices shows a different picture. Farmgate prices for eggs have been stagnant, and the average egg farmers' profits have been zero or even negative over the past several decades. No wonder they need the volume provided by 6 million hens if they are getting so little profit (if any) per egg! But the share of the egg price that retailers take has been going up and up. Consumers ARE paying more for eggs with each passing year. That money just isn't going to the farmer. If consumers are paying more for eggs, shouldn't they be getting something more for their money? I'd rather see that money go to farmers so they can make production safer, more humane, and more sustainable, not to the retailers so they can stuff it in their pockets.