Bad Eggs: Why the Salmonella Outbreak Was Preventable

-The worst thing about the current outbreak of salmonella in the United States is all the people who are getting sick. The second worst thing is that it was entirely preventable.

The New York Times reports that federal regulators rejected the idea of mandating egg farmers to vaccinate their hens against salmonella, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to support such a stance (hat tip to The Daily Beast for the link). The vaccination would have only cost a penny per dozen eggs and was introduced in Britain a decade ago, with resounding success.

Given the serious consequences of salmonella and the low cost of vaccination, this seems like a sensible precaution. However, it’s far from the root cause of the problem.

To me the most shocking thing about this outbreak is that we’re talking about a recall of more than half a billion eggs from just two producers in Iowa. Half a billion eggs; two producers. Doesn’t that seem wrong?

The egg producers in question have been linked to a string of past abuses, ranging from environmental to worker rights, according to a Democracy Now story I heard on PBS Radio this week. (Unfortunately, there’s no link online yet). It seems to me that salmonella is the natural outcome of factory farming – producing eggs in a relentlessly profit-driven industrial environment. A vaccine would reduce salmonella, and that would be a darn good thing, but it wouldn’t fix all the other problems associated with battery egg farming, from chicken welfare to water contamination to worker safety. Europe has already banned battery egg farms and California is now doing the same. But perhaps Iowa is the state that really needs to act?

Small-scale free-range or organic egg farming is far less likely to foster the environment for outbreaks like this. And if an outbreak does occur, the resulting recall would involve thousands of eggs, not half a billion.

To me, the moral of the story is clear: Cheap food makes you ill.

Photo credit: Boiled egg photo by Craig Hatfield on Flickr, licensed for commercial use under Creative Commons.