by Marion Nestle
Aug 29 2010

Further thoughts about the egg recalls

Yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times carried a front-page story on the egg recalls: “U.S. ties farm to Salmonella; town is tense.”  The reporter, Monica Davey, wrote from Clarion, Iowa, the town where the tainted eggs came from.

Her story reminded me of Eric Schlosser’s movie, Fast Food Nation.  The film was intended as fiction, but much of what we are hearing about these egg operations makes it seem like fact.

Here’s what struck me most about her article.

  • So far, nearly 1,500 illnesses have been linked to these eggs, a record.
  • The FDA found matching strains of Salmonella in samples taken from bone meal and barns owned by the DeCoster family.
  • The DeCosters produce 2.3 million dozen eggs per week from their Iowa operations.
  • Iowa is expected to produce 15 billion eggs from 60 million hens this year.
  • The DeCosters have a long history of violations of health and safety laws at their operations.
  • The DeCosters contribute generously to the Clarion community.
  • The plant workers are Mexican.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but the take home lessons seem obvious:

  • Industrial egg operations have gotten out of hand in size, waste, and lack of safety.
  • Immigration issues are very much involved.  If places like this are going to hire immigrants to work in them, we need to protect the rights of those workers.
  • The Senate needs to pass the food safety bill and enable the FDA to do more inspecting.  The accompanying New York Times editorial emphasizes that point.

Today’s New York Times editorial says it all again:

It wasn’t simply that the operation is out of scale with the Iowa landscape. It is out of scale with any landscape, except perhaps the industrial districts of Los Angeles County. What shocked me most was the thought that this is where the logic of industrial farming gets us. Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror — a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.

I’m hoping some good will come of all this.  Maybe this is our version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking book that got Congress to act immediately to pass the Food and Drug Act that governs our food safety system to this day.   The Senate has been sitting on S.510 for more than a year.   For shame!

Addition, August 30: Michele’s Simon’s list of favorite articles on the egg recalls.

  • Thanks for keeping this problem in the press. It is amazing how quickly we forget. This crisis is an indicator of a systemic problem with our food system. I”ve posted a few thoughts of my own here: I’d appreciate your feedback.


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  • Another great observation on this issue. Keep spreading the word. Eventually the din will grow so loud that the powers that be can’t help but to hear us.

  • Once again, Dr. Nestle, there are substantial disconnects within what you write and between what you write and what is happening.

    Your quote from the “New York Times” editorial decrying the industrialization of American agriculture and advocate a food safety bill designed only for an industrial food system. And please don’t blow me smoke about the new protections. Anyone with real world experience of engaging regulations knows that the changes have ZERO substance and can be easily circumvented. Have you forgotten how you complained about the Bush Administration’s doing that?

    How is the take home lesson from Wright County Egg (where the FDA failed to use its authority to ever do an inspection) that we need to pass S 510 to “enable the FDA to do more inspecting?” S 510 doesn’t AUTHORIZE the FDA to do more inspections; it REQUIRES the FDA to do MORE inspections.

    As someone regarded as an expert in food safety you surely should know that the Senate has not been “sitting on” S 510 for a year. Huge numbers of staff hours have gone into trying to write a better bill. It hasn’t grown from 116 pages as filed to 225 without lots of work.

    The shame is that the apologists for S 510 are so willing to accept 77 additional pages of the Managers’ amendment without any public explanation of the reasons for the changes.

    For example, explain to me the impact of the exemption from additional recordkeeping requirements for high risk foods of Section 204 (d) 6. (D) Commingled Raw Agricultural Commodities? Why should that be limited to one-up and one-back but facilities with an AGI less than $500,000 (as requested by Sens. Tester and Hagan shouldn’t?

    S 510 needs a public review and discussion of its provisions.

  • Suzanne

    Harry Hamil –

    In looking at your website, it appears that you and Marion are on the same page. Why the hostility? The movement for safe AND healthy food doesn’t need this type of infighting. It certainly won’t advance the cause.

  • Definitely makes a case for local food. One city close to mine just passed a law that residents couldn’t keep hens in appropriate sized yards. What a dissapointment for all those trying to be self- sustainig.

  • When you hear of a recall, you don’t automatically connect it to poor farm practices (at least I don’t). With the information you’ve provided it’s a wonder there aren’t more scares or recalls. It’s just a pity that people becoming ill has to be the precursor for action or attention.

  • Suzanne,

    I don’t believe that this blog is the appropriate place to answer your direct question.

    Having followed Dr. Nestle’s work closely for several and probably written a minimum of 30 comments on her blog, I can say unequivocally that we are not on same page and our differences are substantial.

    I would not describe my comments to Dr. Nestle as infighting. Rather, they are an attempt at a spirited discussion.

    You can demonstrate that you truly want an answer by writing me directly at I hope you will.

  • Suzanne

    I wrote you, Harry. Thank you for the offer.

  • Yes this is a lot like the jungle. What have we learned??? Poorly treated workers, poorly treated animals, poor sanitation, large scale environmental destruction.
    If they don’t care about the workers, animals, environment, then the owners/management probably show little concern for the safety of their product.

    Read: The Jungle! If you think you’ve read it—you probably missed 1/3 of the material. UNCENSORED editions:

  • I love this blog! After watching Food Inc., I became aware of how most Americans are completely ignorant of where their food comes from and how it is produced. I’m trying to go vegan with my family, but at least for the time being I can buy eggs from a family who lives nearby. They only produce a dozen eggs every couple of days and the chickens live in humane, sanitary conditions.

  • GIMP

    What I’ve been hearing from the egg producers is that it’s not their fault the eggs they produce are filthy, diseased poison, it’s the consumer’s fault for being responsible enough to cook them correctly.

    No problem, I dumped the 2 dozen eggs I used to eat a couple a day of and haven’t purchased or eaten an egg since. I have adopted Greek yogurt as my breakfast of choice. It’s inexpensive, high in protein, requires no cooking, minimal cleanup, and hopefully isn’t poisonous diseased trash.

    I don’t miss eggs a bit.

  • “Iowa is expected to produce 15 billion eggs from 60 million hens this year.”

    15,000,000,000 eggs / 56,276 sq. ft in Iowa /365 days =

    730.26 eggs per square mile per day! Please tell me I did something wrong…

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  • I disagree with Senate Bill 510 – the ‘fake’ food safety bill…it will just take away our rights to buy eggs from our neighbors and small local producers by placing the same standards on them as a huge factory farm operation that has sub-standard conditions as these egg factories in Iowa!! It wouldn’t surprise me if this ‘out break’ was brought to light just to get this bill passed. I will continue to support small local farmers and slow food. But S.510 is not the answer to the ridiculousness of factory farms!!

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  • The Mariel Martin

    The article mentions that the workers are Mexicans and all the comments refer to protecting the “rights of the workers.” My belief is that using people who are here illegally and who don’t speak English contributes to the problem: they are unable to understand the language, read warning signs, discern the difference between containers of ingredients, follow written directions or fill out forms and reports properly. The Latinos I have worked with are also totally unwilling to confront problems and just quit rather than face any difficulties. My bet is that use of illegal immigrants has been a contributing factor in many of these large scale food contamination problems. Workers who have some education and training–and who can read and speak English–are much more likely to pay attention to detail and have a basic understanding of sanitation and healthy food practices. To be effective the S. 510 should require that workers speak and read English. (I’m sure that some people will suggest marking everything in Spanish–but many of the illegals are illiterate in Spanish as well.)

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