Eggs Testing the limits of industrial agriculture

Published 8:40 am Monday, September 27, 2010

The family farm occupies a special place in the American psyche. It represents tradition, trust, wholesomeness and hard work. But it no longer represents American agriculture.

Now, that’s dominated by huge factory farms raising hogs and chickens on a truly massive scale.

Two recent, unrelated events suggest that after decades of growth, industrial-scale agriculture is starting to experience some push back. That would be a good thing.

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Factory farms have been under attack for years. Animal-rights activists have complained about inhumane conditions in which animals are raised. Conservationists have focused on the environmental effects of huge waste-storage ponds, necessary because of the large number of animals at the facilities.

But the tipping point, if it comes soon, won’t be reached because of concerns about animal welfare or clean water. It will come because these massive meat and egg factories are unhealthy for the people who consume those products.

Exhibit A is Wright County Egg, the Iowa egg producer whose products have been linked to more than 1,500 salmonella infections around the country.

News reports last month, shortly after the company was identified as a source for the salmonella outbreak, detailed appalling conditions at the farm. Henhouses reportedly were infested with rodents and maggots.

Documents released this week by congressional investigators showed that as long ago as September 2008, laboratory tests inside the henhouses showed salmonella of the type associated with the disease outbreak. Wright County Egg didn’t report the test findings to food-safety regulators. It wasn’t required to do so. That’s part of the problem.

The company didn’t reveal the test results to Congress, either, despite being subpoenaed. That’s not optional.

Salmonella often is found in henhouses, particularly ones in which hens are crammed into cages to increase egg yields, a routine practice at factory farms.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each day, even without major outbreaks, about 500 Americans are infected with salmonella caused by eating eggs. Each year, about 70 people die from those infections. That’s a high price to pay for cheap eggs.

Growth of industrial agriculture is fueled in large part by antibiotics.

Some 70 percent of the antibiotics consumed in this country are used on healthy farm animals. The antibiotics promote faster growth and prevent illness in animals raised in crowded, filthy conditions. But they also give rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Americans have benefited from cheaper meats and vegetables thanks to our world’s-best agriculture. But there’s growing evidence that at least some of the money we save in the supermarket is spent later in hospitals. That’s not a good bargain.