by Marion Nestle
Aug 20 2010

The Salmonella-in-eggs situation gets worse

Judging from the number of interview requests today, everyone has figured out that the egg recall is not only awful for the people who got sick but also has something to do with our hopelessly inadequate food safety system and dysfunctional Congress.

The CDC has updated its statistics on the number of illnesses.  Here’s what this epidemic looks like:

About 2,000 cases have been reported but the CDC does not yet know whether these are all related to this particular outbreak.

Here’s what’s special about this particular recall:

  • Salmonella in eggs never used to be a problem until we had industrial egg production that puts hundreds of thousands of hens in close (very close) proximity.
  • The company producing these particular eggs has a long history of rule violations.
  • The company was not required to follow standard food safety plans.  Whatever it had to do was voluntary.
  • The FDA started writing rules for safe egg production more than 10 years ago.  These were quashed. It finally got them done last July.
  • The new safety rules for eggs went into effect this July 9, too late to prevent this outbreak.
  • The FDA’s hands are tied by inadequate legislation and resources.
  • The House passed legislation last August—one year ago—to give the FDA more authority and more resources.  The Senate has been sitting on S.510 ever since.

The moral?  Voluntary doesn’t work.  We need mandatory food safety rules.

And sooner rather than later, no?

  • Sheila

    Eggs from my local free-range farmer with clean hen houses and hens that look happy and healthy—priceless. They treat their hens like pets, keep their environment clean, and we have delicious eggs that have never made us sick. A bonus is we get eggs with different colored shells, pretty.

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  • This egg recall reminded me of a Michael Pollan quote: “Cheap food has a very high cost

  • Jasper

    In your third bullet point, I think you meant “not” rather than “now”.

    Mandatory rules still won’t work if there is inadequate monitoring and enforcement.

    The root cause of the problem, as you state, is industrial egg production, so let’s attack the root cause. I vote with Sheila, above, for local, free-range, organic eggs.

  • Anthro

    @Sheila and Jasper

    I’m with you and have my own hens as pets with eggs as a bonus. But, when you look at the entire population, I’m not sure it will work unless a large majority adopt backyard chickens as part of their lifestyle–many, many places don’t even allow them still.

    If we want to change the root cause (factory farming), we’re going to have to get people to change their ways. Some large bakeries, for instance use (guessing) thousands of eggs/month. I HATE factory farming of chickens, and would love to see it change, but feel rather helpless other than to make sure I am not a part of it or party to it.

  • isabella

    Yes the industrialised produciton is the problem. But the small clean sustainable healthy farms that are producing food the right way will be subjected to the same regulations under s510-food and safety act. regulations that will burden them with costly fees and fines not in proportion to their size. we need exemptions for these small farmers

  • Isabella: S. 510 clearly states in numerous places that regulations and fees will be adjusted based on the size and risk of the business.

    A small farm will be exempt. A small facility will have fees and requirements responsive to the size/risk of its operation. That is how the latest version of S. 510 is written.

    Here is a link to the bill:

  • Mandatory rules yes, that are enforced. But even laws cannot address the problems inherent to factory farm production. A better approach is the one we’ve adopted here in California and in a few other states: to phase out battery hen cages altogether. That would not do away with factory farming but it would at least eliminate the worst conditions for egg-laying hens.

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  • Helen

    Until the government goes back to supporting rural culture and family farms of reasonable size, regulating the safety of food is going to continue to be difficult. The food factory lobby is very strong and has lots of money. Here in Canada, is nearly impossible to legally sell eggs from a small farm, because the regulations designed to huge operations apply to small ones, too. Why would a small farm with chickens need to have a separate huge room to candle eggs in? Also, here in Ontario, farmers have to buy egg quotas, and promise to produce and sell a huge amount of eggs. This pretty well precludes having a few chickens and selling to the neighbors. One man who was selling locally had all his chickens confiscated, caged, and taken away as if they were the cartons of contraband rather than live creatures.
    We need a whole new government attitude about how our food is produced, and who is allowed to produce it. And with all the rules and regulations, and huge companies controlling prices for what farmers need and then controlling prices realized for what farmers produce, “allowed” is exactly the right word.

  • There have been eight studies published in the last five years comparing cage and cage-free egg operations, and they all found higher rates of Salmonella in the caged facilities.

    Even many in the industry agree that cage systems increase Salmonella risk:

    More info on these studies at

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  • Will Mangham

    Dr. Nestle,

    Thanks for keeping updates coming on this. Here at Polyface Farms, we manually gather, clean, and sort over 90 dozen eggs a day from Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, and Rhode Island Reds. Some sanitize the bedding of our RAKEN house (which houses our rabbit breeding stock), some are pastured inside a large electric net that is moved to fresh ground every few days, and some free-range from our Eggmobiles, sanitizing the cattle paddocks and producing rich eggs as a byproduct. Integrity and transparency are the solutions! All are welcome to come here and have a look around. Hopefully the new food safety bill will encourage more small producers to connect with consumers locally!

    -Will Mangham

  • Dr. Nestle, your statement, “The new safety rules for eggs went into effect this July 9, too late to prevent this outbreak” is absolutely incorrect.

    First, according to “Food Safety News” (, the first identified egg producer, Wright County Egg, has recalled eggs for the Julian dates 136 – 229. The Julian date for July 9th is 190. Thus, 40 days of production were AFTER the new FDA Shell Egg Rule went into effect. That is probably well over 125,000,000 eggs! The subsequent egg producers implicated have also recalled huge numbers of eggs produces AFTER the new FDA Shell Egg Rule went into effect. Clearly, the new FDA Shell Egg Rule did NOT stop the events that led to the recalls.

    Second, no major egg producer would wait until the effective date to have fully implemented the new regs. Doing so would open it up to a glitch that would make it out of compliance on the effective date. No decent manager would risk that; so clearly even more of the production complied voluntarily with the new FDA Shell Egg Rule.

    Third, as you pointed out, the rules were in process over 10 years. As I recall, it was 19 years. Wright County Egg almost certainly has been carefully monitoring and lobbying the rules. As a result, it almost certainly knew the proposed rules inside and out and has been altering its processing accordingly along the way.

    One thing that industrial ag seldom gets credit for is that large entities frequently VOLUNTARILY EXCEED PROPOSED RULES for quite a while before they are imposed. This is surely the case with Fresh Express and my guess is that it was also true for Wright County Egg and the others.

    Why do they do this? In part, because they know that their production is so large that, IF there is a food safety problem in their processing, it will almost always show up. The law of large numbers has shown that for a couple of hundred years.

    A second reason is that with modern forensic techniques are readily available not only to the CDC, FDA, FSIS, et al but they are used by plaintiffs’ attorneys like your friend, Bill Marler. As a result, large producers have no place to hide when a serious problem arises.

    Fourth, as clearly pointed our by your ally, Rep. Rosa DeLauro to “Food Safety News” (, egg regulation is split between the USDA and FDA. Thus, a turf fight, not authority, may have been the problem. Wasn’t that one of the most important things that your supporter President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group was designed to eliminate?

    Fifth, rather than supporting the passage of S 510 as you would have us believe, this shows that the industrial-size-only approach to food safety that you support will ALWAYS continue to have major failures.

  • You seem to be correct, Harry. The rules weren’t enough in the face of voluntary compliance.

    Are you not aware that the owner of Wright Eggs was referred to as a habitual offender? Check it out over at Grist:

    Or you could read the post before this one:

    Under the rules of S. 510, he would be subject to more scrutiny and inspections.. just the sort of thing that might have prevented his noncompliance from sickening so many people.

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  • Emily

    It would help if we could stop thinking about food production as business and started thinking in terms of local and sustainable. There’s an inherent and deep danger in thinking of animals as food-producing machines. I can actually visit the farm where the eggs I buy are raised and see for myself that things are clean and the chickens are busily leading their chickeny lives, and the humans gather and inspect the eggs by hand, and the cages are clean. Vote, as Michael Pollan keeps reminding us, with your fork!

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  • Josh, this made me think of the exact same Michael Pollan quote! Cheap food really does come at a high cost.

  • My one year old appeared to be allergic to eggs while we were living in NYC. But now that we live in Guatemala we started to give her local eggs again and it seems as though her allergies have cleared.