Egg on the Face of Factory Farms

A half a billion and counting. That’s the number of eggs recalled this past month in the U.S. due to widespread salmonella contamination linked to two large-scale Iowa egg farms, and more than 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning. The incident is yet another in a long string of food safety scares linked to the factory-farming, intensive confinement, and inhumane conditions in which poultry and livestock are raised for human consumption.

One of the egg producers linked to the most recent salmonella case has a history of violations dating back to 1994, according to Fox News, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that the past violations were outside of its regulatory arena. The USDA has never had an inspector dedicated to food safety visit the farms in question, reported Fox News.

Have you seen photos of these farms? In CAFOS, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations such as the farms in question, poultry are packed to the rafters in long, corrugated metal, warehouse-like buildings. Often, their beaks are cut off so they don’t peck at each other due to the intensive and stressful crowding. They are kept in close cages where they can barely stand or turn around. Drugs such as antibiotics are administered regularly on a preventive basis, as diseases spread rapidly amidst such close quarters. In fact, the overuse of antibiotics in conventional agriculture has been linked to increases in antibiotic-resistant diseases in human populations. The efficient disposal of animal waste becomes a polluting problem, too, with such large farm operations. They are not sustainable.

Score One For the Chickens
However, in a major animal welfare victory announced in August, farmers and animal rights activists in Ohio reached an agreement that will sharply restrict the close confinement of hens, hogs and veal calves. This is the latest sign, says the New York Times, that “so-called factory farming – a staple of modern agriculture that is seen by critics as inhumane and a threat to the environment and health – is on the verge of significant change.”

Urged by Governor Ted Strickland, Ohio farm leaders met in secret with the Humane Society of the United States; they were hoping to avoid a November 2010 ballot referendum on humane animal treatment that some farmers feared they would lose. The result was that the sides agreed to ban new construction of egg farms that pack birds in cages, and to phase out the tight caging of pregnant sows within 15 years and veal calves by 2017.

Coming on the heels of factory farming limits imposed by California voters in 2008, this agreement between farmers and animal rights activists is a huge step in the right direction. It’s important, too, in that Ohio is the second largest egg producer, after Iowa.

However, the agreement does not affect the large factory farm operations already in place in Ohio; the New York Times described one typical barn at a large-scale egg farm as containing 268,000 small white hens living in cages “about the size of an open newspaper, six or seven to a cage.”

As the salmonella egg recall spreads, egg production has come to the fore of the debate because more than 90% of the country’s eggs are produced in the stacked rows of cages that animal welfare advocates call inhumane, says the Times.

Don’t Panic; Buy Organic
Organic eggs may be more expensive, but I submit that they are worth more, and they may be better for your health. Produced under humane conditions where animals have access to the outdoors and where they are not over-crowded, organic eggs may contain more essential fatty acids and other nutrients. Some say, including me, that organic eggs are more flavorful, with richer, deeper yolks. No antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones or pesticides are used in their production, thus helping to reduce your dietary exposure to toxic synthetic chemicals.

Retailers in my area such as Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, Sprouts and Whole Foods Market sell humane, natural and organically produced eggs, including Horizon, Organic Valley, Cyd’s Nest Fresh and Vital Farms, to name a few. I’m partial to the mixed dozen of fresh green and brown eggs I buy from Grant Family Farms, located just north of Fort Collins; they’re available through Grant Farms’ CSA, and also in Whole Foods’ Colorado stores.

For budget minded consumers (aren’t we all?) who want to support ethical treatment of animals, visit the natural and organic foods coupon sites; Organic Valley offers $1 off coupons on their website; Horizon offers coupons on its website. Here’s an organic egg coupon resource, too: http://www.organicfoodcoupons.com/organic/coupons/food/eggs/.

Humane animal treatment – what an egg-cellent idea!