by Marion Nestle
Aug 31 2010

The FDA’s egg inspection reports. Yuck.

The FDA has just posted the “483” reports from inspectors who examined the Iowa egg factories responsible for the recent Salmonella outbreak and recalls.  These, as the New York Times puts it, go into “nose-pinching detail.”

I happen to have a strong stomach for these kinds of things, perhaps because I have had children. Birds, like babies, produce waste. Babies create some smelly sanitation issues.  But tens of thousands of birds in one place create waste on an entirely different scale—for the birds themselves, for the workers who handle them, and for people who eat their eggs.

The FDA reports make interesting reading. The inspection violations at the Hillandale facility ranged from the seemingly trivial (unsigned forms) to the disturbing (rodent holes) to the alarming (leaky manure) to the utterly damning (egg wash water testing positive for Salmonella enteriditis).

The comments on the Wright Egg facility sometimes approach the poetic (these are direct quotes):

  • Approximately 2×6 inch wood board was observed on the ground with approximately 8 frogs living underneath.
  • Layer 3 -House 8 had a bird’s nest and birds were observed under the edges of metal siding on the south wall.
  • The outside access door to the manure pits at these locations had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals.
  • Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses.
  • Uncaged birds (chickens having escaped) were observed in the egg laying operation…The uncaged birds were using the manure, which was approximately 8 feet high, to access the egg laying area.
  • There were between 2 to 5 live mice observed inside the egg laying houses.
  • Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed…inside the egg laying houses.
  • Birds were observed roosting and flying, chicks heard chirping in the storage and milling facility. In addition, nesting material was observed in the feed mill closed mixing system, ingredient storage and truck filling areas.

Take home lesson: If you just have a few chickens, waste is not a problem. If you have millions of chickens in one place, you have a disaster in waiting.

Let’s put concentration in the egg industry in some historical context. My partner, Dr. Malden Nesheim, trained originally as a poultry scientist. He points out that according to the USDA about 450 egg facilities in the United States house more than 100,000 egg laying hens, and these account for nearly 80% of all egg production.

Just for fun, he looked up the figures in his 1966 textbook, Poultry Production (10th edition).  A table in the first chapter lists more than 100,000 poultry farms in 1959.

The change may be more efficient, but it is certainly not healthier for anyone concerned.

Clarification, September 1: In 1959, there were more than 100,000 farms for which poultry products constituted the main source of income—50% or more. In 2007, 146,000 farms reported to USDA that they had laying hens. But 125,000 of these farms had less than 50 hens. Only 3,360 farms accounted for 97% of the total laying hens. For the vast majority of farms reporting laying hens, eggs do not account for much of the income. The same is true for broilers. The data illustrate the massive concentration in the poultry industry that has occurred in the last half century.

  • Cathy Richards

    Up to now I guess it’s been healthier for the bottom line of the CEO of Wright Eggs. There’s that at least…

  • Sheila

    Does the family that owns all this nastiness actually eat eggs from their own production lines?

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  • What a great observation about the concentration of the poultry industry in about 40 years. I read your comments on the NY Times and the original article–the numbers are staggering and its fascinating that Iowa became the lead producer mostly because of low cost grain….

  • Elaine W

    Rodents and maggots and flies, oh my! And the egg producers have the chutzpah to tell the general public how to cook and store eggs safely, when they can’t even keep their own production facilities clean.

  • Bobby

    seriously, how does this sort of failing grade not make the inspectors close down the “facility” until things are fixed?

  • Emily

    Um… FROGS? Seriously? That actually made me laugh. Also, I may have to hug my egg guy this weekend.

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  • Yuck!!! All the more reason to get a few backyard hens of your own or buy from responsible farmers at your local farmer’s market.

  • This is my bilingual post yesterday:

    Are those frogs normal? I remember in the documentary “Poisoned Waters” (PBS) the frogs had 6 legs and inverse sex organs…..

  • “The change may be more efficient, but it is certainly not healthier for anyone concerned.”

    This about sums up the industrial food system. It applies to more than just eggs.

  • This just makes me ANGRY!!!!

    This is creulty to animals in my opinion. So much manure that it knocked down a door?? 8 feet high manure piles IN the hen house?? Live and dead flies too numerous to count!!!!??? And this is where our FOOD is coming from? I am as mad as hell that the FDA knew about this. I am as mad as hell that no politicians will stand up for the health and safety of this country!! I am as MAD AS HELL!

    If the masses knew about these conditions there would be a march on Washington. The best thing we can do is to diseminate the infomartion! Tell everyone you know. I will never buy eggs at the grocery store again.

  • The flies don’t alarm me (to a point). A few mice don’t alarm me. Some sparrows nesting in the eaves don’t alarm me. You will find all of these around poultry on any traditional farm, real farm. You’ll find them in my barn, where my poultry are cooped at night. (The barn cats keep the mice down pretty well, though.) The frogs just mystify me.

    Hens that got loose from the cages, that heartens me.

    Eight-foot high mountains of chicken shit, that alarms me.

    It’s all about the numbers and the crowding. None of the rest of it matters.

  • I would also like to add that a 483 is like a smack on the back of the hand. As in clinical research, the 483 outlines problems and they have 30-60 days to respond on how they will fix the problems.

    A Warning Letter on the other hand is a lot more serious. It means that things need to be fixed now or we will shut you down. Both 483’s and Warning Letters are available for public view on the FDA website.

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  • Anthro

    It has always mystified me that many of the same people who don’t want to pay $3 or $4 for eggs that are produced under much better (but still fairly large concentrations) conditions are fine with $4 coffee or $3 to rent a movie and other such elective spending. I drink latte myself, but I don’t complain about the cost of responsibly produced food.

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