Do You Know Where Your Eggs Come From?

by Mark T. Mitchell on August 23, 2010 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

According to the latest reports, more than half a billion eggs are being recalled in an attempt to thwart the outbreak of salmonella apparently emanating from an egg factory in Iowa.  The FDA, of course, has promised an aggressive investigation that will doubtless be followed by hearings and more regulations to protect the American people from their food. This expansion of the regulatory state 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.

The alternative is to decentralize food production. For example, my wife and I buy eggs from a man down the road. He keeps fifty or so hens and supplements his income with a little egg business. Once every week or so, we stop by his house and knock on the door. He invites us in where we chat for a minute or two while he gets a dozen fresh eggs from the refrigerator. He loves to talk about his chickens and I’m happy to listen. He takes great delight in his birds and cares well for them–I see them each time I pull into his driveway. I trust him. And I trust that the eggs we buy from him are safe. Our personal relationship, born of proximity, makes government regulations unnecessary. If I ever concluded that he was mistreating his chickens or creating an unsafe environment for the production of eggs, I could, armed with that knowledge, find another source of eggs.

Furthermore, if it ever happened that his eggs were contaminated with salmonella, the “outbreak” would be easy to contain. Only a few families would be effected. No CDC would be needed to trace the eggs through a massive industrial system. In short, the threat would be contained because the production is of an easily managed scale.

A decentralized food system or a centralized regulatory system backed by the power of the state.  These seem to be the two options.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve August 23, 2010 at 3:07 pm

The government will probably pass “food safety laws” that put your friend out of business and give the industrial egg factories a pass.

avatar John Médaille August 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Steve, exactly. The corporations use these incidents to consolidate their own control. To solve problems that they themselves have caused, laws are passed which represent a small expense for a big operation, but an impossible cost for a small one. After each incident, a little bit more of the industrial, agrarian, and retail “commons” is enclosed by the corporation.

avatar Marchmaine August 23, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Never fear, congress was already working on it: S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act.

I’m sure they will not let a good crisis go to waste.

I’ve been (casually) researching the agitprop of AgriBusiness against free-holders (conveniently published by the USDA), and while the numbers of eggs mentioned (380M – 500M) are indeed staggering, the entire 100B egg production of the US could be replaced by 1.3M farmers with “proper” sized flocks (300 hens). That works out to a mere 4 citizens per Thousand with a small flock. The USDA reports that even despite the war on farming, there still exists 2M farms… more than enough to provide eggs (among other things) to local populations.

…if there still existed a market and infrastructure to do this.

avatar Noel August 23, 2010 at 7:45 pm

I don’t see any realistic scenario where we don’t need a strong FDA. Yes, I’d prefer obtaining as much of my food as possible locally, but for many that isn’t a practical option. As long as the population remains high, we will be largely an urban country, and large corporations will dominate. Large corporations require large regulations to keep them accountable. Those with the means and availability should buy locally, unencumbered by unnecessary regulation, but a significant portion of the population won’t have this option. This means the best practical option is a strong FDA regulating the corporations, but mostly leaving the local small farms alone.

For what it’s worth, we get our eggs both from our country friend’s egg surplus and from the local grocery chain.

avatar Cecelia August 23, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I agree the FDA still is necessary – but it would be nice to have an FDA that acts only to protect the food supply – not advantage big business.

I used to purchase my eggs and chickens from a local farmer. He retired and his son now runs the farm and I do not have the same level of trust in his methods – chickens don’t look as healthy or the coops as clean. So I no longer buy from him – yet there is no reasonably close farmer for me to go to so it is the supermarket for me. So I and the millions who lack access to a local farmer do need the FDA.

I have had the seriously unpleasant experience of salmonella – hospital stay and all. This is not a fun disease and can kill infants and older folks.

avatar radu August 24, 2010 at 8:43 am

“A decentralized food system or a centralized regulatory system backed by the power of the state. These seem to be the two options.”

If bill S510 passes (http://www.justmeans.com/Senate-Bill-S510-Food-Safety-or-Food-Fascism/27723.html), the development of the deep economy and of human scale agriculture will be compromised.

avatar JimWilton August 25, 2010 at 11:25 am

A more likely scenario than Federal regulation crushing small farmers is that the plight of small farmers is used by Agribusiness to argue against regulation altogether.

In today’s NY Times, there is an article comparing the regulatory regimes in the U.S. and the U.K. as they address salmonella and egg production. The U.K. requires vaccination of hens and has not had a recent salmonella outbreak. The U.S. (likely because of resistance to regulation by Agribusiness) has not.

I am all in favor of small farmers and localized production. However, except for the very small premium, organic market, this is not a solution. Agribusiness has consolidated farming because production is cheaper. Now, you could argue that artificially low prices for oil (generated by below market offshore oil leases and markets that do not incorporate environmental costs into oil prices) have facilitated this. But, absent some structural change in our agricultural markets, the “option” for localized production and minimal regulation is pure fantasy.

We need reasonable regulation from an FDA that can make decisions in the interest of consumers independent of industry lobbying.

avatar Tristan August 26, 2010 at 6:32 am

Isn’t it ironic? Most people here would prefer to buy their food locally, but that isn’t practical or feasible, therefore we need a strong FDA etc. But how did we get to this situation? Why was traditional farming decimated to such an extent that it isn’t even included in the Census as an occupation any more? Because we (and our parents and grandparents before us) have allowed the Government to act overwhelmingly for the interests of Big Food (since World War II), at the expense of our health and life quality (and life expectancy, ultimately).

By the way, those who speak of the “small, premium organic market” are living in the past. Organic food is one of the fastest growing sectors: “U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009. Sales in 2009 represented 5.1 percent growth over 2008 sales. Experiencing the highest growth in sales during 2009 were organic fruits and vegetables, up 11.4 percent over 2008 sales. Source: Organic Trade Association’s 2010 Organic Industry Survey” http://www.ota.com/organic/mt/business.html. A lot more numbers supporting this are available on their website.

As to industrial farming being “more efficient” than small farm farming, that myth has been already exploded. Even in terms of yield per acre, small farms produce more food, because they have the versatility to make the land work harder (intercropping, crop rotation and so on). This is from the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture.

The reason we don’t have more small farms (aside from the muscle power of Big Food) is that “we have substituted oil for people” (from “Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben). The small farm produces more per acre because it uses more people per acre. Since WW I it has been cheaper to use oil than people, but guess what – unemployment is rising and so are oil prices. Why couldn’t we have a network of supermarkets (like Whole Foods) that each sell the food produced on hundreds of small, local farms around them? All we need to do is pass the laws that encourage small farming instead of decimating it to support Big Food and enrich the five people who control it.

avatar Peter B. Nelson August 26, 2010 at 9:02 am

Pass stringent new regulations to ensure large factory farms never again contaminate a major portion of the nation’s food supply. Compliance with them will be impossible for small operators, whose closure will consolidate even more food production into even fewer large factory farms. When the next outbreak occurs (and it’s just a matter of time and probabilities) the number of affected persons will be even higher and the national impact even more severe. Repeat.

In 1885 Mr. Andrew Carnegie gave this speech: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” is all wrong. I tell you “put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch the basket.” Look round you and take notice; men who do that do not often fail. It is easy to watch and carry the one basket. It is trying to carry too many baskets that breaks most of the eggs in this country. He who carries three baskets must put one on his head, which is apt to tumble and trip him up.

I’m sure Carnegie would be surprised to find he was taken so literally.

avatar Marchmaine August 27, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Tristan… nicely put.

To gild the lily… even the Egg Industry rag acknowledges that the labor cost to manage 300 hens is effectively $0. Feed, on the other hand, is another matter. If your hens are 100% pastured, you can reduce feed costs by approximately 20%-30%… but these savings are usually obliterated by the commitment to organic feed. Since organic feed is not triple subsidized the way conventional corn is, the costs are higher-or, more accurately, all the costs are borne by the farmer rather than distributed across the tax base.

And, since feed is the key profit factor for chickens, does it surprise you to learn that the 9 million hen factories were operating their own feed-mills under a nifty exemption:

“Feed mills normally are regulated by the FDA and by state agencies, and inspectors would look for rodent control and other sanitation measures. However, this mill was exempt from inspection because it was the company’s own, says Dustin Vande Hoef, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.” (Source=USA Today).

As Tristan rightly points out, the suburban response will be: MORE REGULATION. But this misses the point.

The mega-industrial farms are regularly granted exemptions and policy benefits to help them become mega-sized. It is not Farming efficiency or free market efficiencies, or any sort of efficiency that gives us the Industrial Food Factories we have: it is deliberate policy decisions that privilege certain models (I believe Vertical Integration is the preferred business term) at the expense of others – collusion pure and simple.

You have to recognize that the USDA and FDA do not have health as a concern – else they would not allow factory farming at all; this sort of farming unhealthy for the farmers, for the animals and the consumers. If you disabuse yourself of the notion that food is for health, you will realize that the policy objectives of the USDA and FDA are for solely growth (in all its good and bad forms).

avatar wufnik August 28, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Sorry, I don’t buy the notion that these are the only two options. I live in Britain, where, after a salmonella scare, the government responded by requiring chickens to be inoculated. As JimWilton said up there, this solved he salmonella problem. But, as anyone who lives here knows, the UK still maintains a huge degree of localism in its food production. I live in London, but I can tell you what farms and where in the country my eggs come from. Same with meat, by the way.

The FDA has been gutted over the past 30 years (it started under Reagan), and its only mission now is to support agribusiness. This has been so endlessly documented that its seems tiresome to have to repeat it. But the infrastructure is in place for a more effective FDA; all that’s needed is more rigorous enforcement of existing regulations (especially in the area of meat inspection), sufficient staffing to do this, and a vaccination program. This isn’t rocket science–just basic regulatory enforcement and common sense that puts the health of the animals and consumers ahead of the financial demands of agribusiness.

avatar Matt August 29, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Vaccinating laying hens would only address one source out of many for recent food-borne illness outbreaks. It would also be hindered by cost and vaccine availability for the hundreds of millions of hens nationwide (and would need to be done annually as birds are generally replaced on a yearly basis). Other sources of recent salmonella outbreaks include peanuts (last year), pistachios, tomatoes, and beef with recent strains showing resistance to various drugs. Then there are food-borne illnesses caused by other bacteria such as E. Coli – think spinach and lettuce a couple years back. So unless we vaccinate every peanut, (not to mention resident Canada Geese — often a source of very high bacteria counts –, deer and other wildlife whose overpopulation in many areas makes the spread of disease through waterways and farmland problematic) we won’t solve the problems caused by a massive food production system that doesn’t take into account the natural ecology of where food stuffs are produced.

The USDA, FDA and others try their best (generally at the processing phase) and although though federal food inspectors must be present on-site at meat processing facilities when in operation, problems will still occur. Animal parts and vegetables from various continents are often blended together in the course of processing a final retail product.

However, rising energy costs, the increasing scarcity of water in the Western U.S. and unpredictable commodities markets are already beginning to converge on large agribusiness to expose an unsustainable model. Look at dairy, where larger diary producers have been hit much harder than smaller producers. Monoculture has become far riskier, and if we see energy costs rise and farm subsidies decreased of fiscal necessity, the smaller, more diverse farms that practice good husbandry will be shown to be a much more resilient model.

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