Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Total (Egg) Recall and Some Scary Math

It's been hard to avoid the recent news about the massive and on-going recall of salmonella-tainted eggs, which has now reached a grand total of more than half a billion (with possibly more to come).  When you're immersed every day in the dealings of small, family farms, it's hard to comprehend how a food grown or raised in one place could spread so far and so wide (14 states (!), 1,300 people (!)).  I thought it might be an interesting exercise to explore just how that kind of thing happens.

According to Food & Water Watch, half of the United States' egg production is concentrated in just five states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California.  In 1987, there were more than 2,500 producers that had operations larger than 75,000 hens.  Today, that number has dropped to 205 — and these 205 produce 95% of the eggs Americans eat.

The USDA states that there are 338 million laying hens in the U.S.  If 95% belong to just 205 producers, that means the average egg producer keeps 1.6 million hens.  That's a lot of hens.

But, that's not even the full picture, because ten of the largest producers actually keep 40% of the nation's flock.  Hillandale, one of the companies involved in the recall, has 14 million hens.  DeCoster, the other, keeps 9 million.

Are these numbers creeping you out yet?

The argument for this kind of system often relies on the added benefits and efficiencies that come with large-scale production and consolidation.  And sure, it does keep prices low, averaging about 10 cents an egg at Wal-Mart, for example.  However, what is often overlooked is this:  While this super-efficient distribution system excels at transporting millions of eggs from a few states to millions of consumers, they also move pathogens — like salmonella — just as efficiently. 

When 205 producers are responsible for 95% of all the eggs eaten in the United States, all it takes is one instance of illness, infection, or willful negligence to risk the health and safety of millions of people.

This is where the argument for small farms, regional food systems and eating locally really hits you in the gut (no pun intended).  Food that is produced with care, by people you know — for example, local eggs from producers where hens aren’t kept in conditions that could lead to the spreading of disease, like crowded cages and hen houses — means accountability, trust and safety.  Not to mention better taste and variety, and the added benefit of supporting your local economy and community.

Paying a little bit more for piece of mind and healthy food — it's worth it.

For more info, check out this article by Tom Philpott at Grist.

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