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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Not Just a Few Rotten Eggs

The U.S. Senate is scheduled today to take up S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, introduced by Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, which would give the Food and Drug Administration new authorities and resources to stop food safety problems before they start. As Durbin has said, “This bipartisan bill is proof that food safety isn't a Democratic issue or a Republican one. Everyone eats. All Americans have a right to know that the food we buy for our families and our pets is safe. We shouldn't have to worry about getting sick, or worse. If there's a problem, our government should be able to catch it and fix it before people die.”

It’s fitting, then, that also today The Humane Society of the United States released the results of a new 28-day undercover investigation at an egg factory farm in Waelder, Tex., operated by Cal-Maine, the nation’s largest egg producer. The HSUS investigator found birds trapped in cage wires, unable to reach food or water; dead birds in cages with live ones, and even laying on the conveyor belt as eggs pass by; and eggs covered in blood and feces. It’s a grisly reminder of the threats to animal welfare and food safety posed by the cage confinement of laying hens. You can read the full report and see the video here.

The results are similar to what HSUS found at Iowa facilities operated by the nation’s second and third largest egg producers in April, Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises, and to what FDA found at the facilities recently implicated in the recent Salmonella outbreak and recall of 500 million eggs, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. When the nation’s top egg giants are found to have unsanitary and inhumane practices, it’s clear that something is rotten in the industry.

And it’s more proof that our fortunes are intertwined with those of animals, as the extreme confinement of birds in wire cages where they can barely move an inch for their entire lives is closely correlated to public health risks: Every one of the last ten published studies comparing cage to cage-free systems found higher Salmonella rates in cage systems, including a 2010 study that found 20 times greater odds of Salmonella infection in caged flocks. Hens stay in cages for one to two years during their lives, while filth falls on them from hens stacked above them and builds up in the cage equipment, and when the flocks are eventually replaced it’s extremely difficult to sanitize these cages. If Salmonella is present, it is easily transmitted to the next population of laying hens.

There’s a growing trend in the food industry to transition to cage-free eggs, but some of the nation’s largest factory farms have been resistant to change, instead preferring to cut corners at the expense of public health and animal welfare. Cal-Maine, in fact, donated more than a half million dollars to the political campaign opposing California’s Proposition 2, which will phase out cage confinement of laying hens in the state by 2015. Rather than invest funds fighting these public policies, companies would be wise to invest in improving their practices to meet consumer demand.

We need industry to be part of the solution, but we also need stronger oversight. The food safety bill being considered today, among other things, would increase the inspections at all food facilities and require annual inspections of high risk facilities; require the food industry to develop plans that identify hazards and implement the right preventive measures; and enable the FDA to more effectively respond to an outbreak by giving the agency new authorities to order recalls, shut down tainted facilities, and access records. If passed, FDA could increase inspections at battery cage egg facilities, require industry plans such as phasing out cages to minimize risk, and shut down repeat offenders. Even now, FDA can reopen its Egg Safety Rule and propose a phase out of cage confinement of hens, as there is an understandable and compelling connection between these confinement systems and food-borne illness.

We need preventative solutions, not just reactions to the next outbreak. Phasing out cage confinement of hens, and moving toward cage-free egg production, is better for animals and better for us.

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