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US: Salmonella Outbreak Tied to Factory Farming

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Aug 27 2010 (IPS) - As regulators traced the U.S. salmonella outbreak spread by infected eggs back to the hen feed used at two Iowa farms Thursday, many groups are pointing the blame at the factory farm system from which the eggs – and bacteria – came.

So far, over 550 million shelled eggs have been recalled after an estimated 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning across 10 states.

While salmonella may not be the most deadly or dangerous bacterium out there – no deaths have so far been tied to the current outbreak – its symptoms do include diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

And, as food safety groups are pointing out, the speed at which and distance across which salmonella from eggs has spread in this outbreak are symptoms of a food system overly reliant on concentrated, consolidated production.

The contaminated feed came from Wright County Egg, owned by Austin “Jack” DeCoster, whose operations have come under fire numerous times in the past for practices including the housing of chickens in conditions that more easily allow for the transmission of diseases.

Those conditions typically mean about six birds crammed together in a small “battery cage,” usually about eight by eight inches (20 cm).

The Iowa farms embroiled in the salmonella outbreak are not nearly the only such operations. In the U.S, 97 percent of eggs produced are estimated to come from battery cages, and over 60 percent of eggs worldwide.

In recent years salmonella has been found in some tomatoes, peppers, spinach and meat, but the current egg recall illustrates a simple point that food safety advocates have been making for years – diseases can spread much more easily between animals crammed into tight quarters like battery cages.

In these dense concentrations of hens, if one animal gets sick, it is much harder to contain or cure.

“These are concentrated operations where in each barn there are about 100,000 birds. This creates a structure in which ambient contamination can be spread more easily,” says Patrick Woodall, a research director at the nonprofit Food & Water Watch.

He says these massive, concentrated operations have a “higher incidence of salmonella than places with less density – increased density increases the risk of contamination.”

The Humane Society of the U.S. says that nine studies in the last five years have found that salmonella is anywhere from three to 50 times more likely in caged-hen facilities as opposed to those where the hens are cage-free.

Woodall says that chickens can be born with salmonella, it can be in the feed they eat or in the environment in which they live.

In this case – though regulators have been careful to point out that many more tests and investigations still have to be done – the bacteria seem to have originated in the feed. But the fact that so many chickens are crammed into such a small space may have allowed that salmonella bacteria to spread to even those who may not have eaten the contaminated feed.

The dense living quarters in which the chickens live can allow bacteria like salmonella to “cross-contaminate” more easily, says Woodall.

But it is not just the egg-laying hens that are consolidated – it is also the production facilities. Five states produce half of the U.S.’s eggs, which helps explain how a problem at a facility in one county in Iowa has made people all over the country sick. The salmonella-tainted eggs, for instance, while originating from just two farms in Iowa, were distributed by at least 36 different brands to over 14 states.


Ironically, the regulation that ensures the safety of these products is far from consolidated.

As has been pointed out numerous times since the salmonella outbreak was first acknowledged and the tainted eggs recalled early last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in charge of shelled eggs – and about 80 percent of the rest of the country’s food supply – while the Agriculture Department oversees other egg products as well as meat and poultry.

The FDA lacks the authority to order a recall of products itself. Instead, as in this case, the agency relies on voluntary recalls by producers.

New regulations went into effect just weeks before the salmonella outbreak – too late to stop it – that require more testing of chickens, their feed and their eggs. If salmonella were found, the contaminated eggs would be redirected to be processed into liquid or powdered form for which they would first be pasteurised to kill the bacteria.

But these new regulations, says Woodall, will continue to rely on a combination of self-testing by companies and FDA oversight – a combination whose success he is unsure about seeing as “FDA regulation has been lax in the past.”

Moreover, the new rule “doesn’t do anything to change the structure of the operations” – the high-density environment in which hen-laying eggs are usually kept.

Food safety groups are pinning their hopes on a bill currently languishing in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill last year, which would create a single federal food safety agency with the ability to conduct mandatory inspections and shut down unsafe facilities.

The FDA itself has called for passage of the bill.

But, Woodall says, “The egg industry fought tooth-and-nail to keep even the regulations [which went into effect just before the egg recall] from coming out.” Those were originally proposed during the Bill Clinton administration, with parts of it – such as the measure requiring eggs to be refrigerated in order to slow bacteria growth – first proposed in the 1980s.

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