Putting All Of Your Eggs In The Same Basket: The Story Of The Salmonella Egg Recall

826egg.jpgUnless you’ve been living under a rock, you couldn’t have missed the past week’s nationwide recall of a half-billion eggs feared to be contaminated with salmonella bacteria. How could half a billion eggs – more eggs than there are people in the United States – become unsalable?
Part of the story is that we’ve been putting all of our eggs in the same basket. All of the recalled eggs originate with two producers in Iowa – Wright County Egg and Hillendale Farm. Iowa has come to dominate egg production nationally because the cost of feed grain is so cheap in Iowa, because of Iowa’s abundant corn fields. Although the cost of feed grain in Iowa is probably only marginally cheaper than elsewhere in the country, the huge scale of modern agribusiness means that egg production will be located in a few centralized locations in Iowa.
In short, we put all of our eggs in a few Iowa-based egg baskets. This means when there is a problem in the supply chain, it will have massive implications. These Iowa plants with their Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are the ideal breeding grounds for the spread of any disease or contaminants: you have massive, very dense populations whose members, once infected, travel across all fifty states.
Also, with that many egg-laying chickens in such close proximity, prophylactic antibiotics are the order of the day to prevent epidemics that would kill off the chickens laying the golden eggs. But regimens of prophylactic antibiotics of course have side effects: they build up resistance and cause new strains of bacteria to evolve.
What’s the solution? Critics of a pending food safety bill (previously blogged about here), including Walter Olson of the Cato Institute, insist that more regulation is not the answer – that the cost of complying with new regulations will crowd out small-scale producers, such as organic and free range egg producers. You can read Olson’s critique here, in part of a New York Times symposium on the salmonella egg recall.
Of course, as many have rightfully pointed out, the blame for the salmonella outbreak lies not only with the degree of regulatory oversight but with the framework of the oversight. Two different government agencies are responsible for the safety of two intricately connected foodstuffs: the chicken and the egg. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for egg safety while the Department of Agriculture regulates chickens. (The same bizarre regulatory framework applies to cows and their milk). Having one government agency that oversees both chickens and their eggs might be more efficient. Of course that’s almost too much to hope for.
Critics of new regulation, like Olson, also maintain that big time egg producers like Wright Egg and Hillendale farm already have market incentives to get uncontaminated food to market. Having to destroy half a billion eggs is going to cost them and their shareholders dearly. Yet such a claim would seem to be belied by the checkered safety records of both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. In 2000, the owner of Wright County Egg was cited as a “habitual violater” of Iowa environmental law. A few years before that, the egg supplier paid $2 million dollars in fines for safety violations at a Maine farm. Economies of scale can apply not only to production, but also to avoiding regulation. A small time farmer skips a safety precaution and profits a little by it, but when a large agribusiness cuts the same corner it reaps much larger savings.
Massive Iowa egg producers are probably here to stay. Americans, and people around the world, demand low-cost food. So what should we be doing? Well, the FDA’s new egg safety regulations that went into effect in July will help prevent another salmonella egg recall of this scale. Additionally, a salmonella vaccine that is given to hens in Britain and New Zealand has proved effective there.
But, more than likely, we’re going to see more outbreaks on even bigger scales as agribusinesses try to squeeze more productivity out of every square foot of their operations.

This blog is maintained by the Boston food poisoning lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. It does not contain legal advice nor should you construe it as offering such.