The recall of a half billion eggs from two Iowa agribusinesses, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, because of salmonella contamination is still dominating the news. Earlier last month the news was the withdrawal of a million pounds of E. coli tainted hamburger. That was followed by nearly 400,000 pounds of deli meats infected with listeria. Who knows exactly where the next outbreak will pop up, but it seems certain to come again from the world of industrial animal food products.
Americans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, even as food safety issues increasingly become headline news. What many people are coming to realize, however, is that the majority of these farm animals are no longer raised on the pastures and barnyards of family farms but inside CAFOs: concentrated animal feeding operations. The farming of animals in these crowded, often filthy, factory-like facilities raises a host of health, environmental and ethical concerns. Salmonella is just the tip of the iceberg.
The concept behind the CAFOs is simple: Cram as many animals into the smallest possible space for maximum growth at the least expense. Laying hens and hogs seem to suffer the harshest fate under this system. A conventional laying hen lives out her days in a wire confinement pen called a battery cage. Confined in the cage with a number of other cell mates, she is normally allotted an area little smaller than a cubic foot to live out her short productive life, never experiencing the outdoors, scratching the dirt, naturally socializing or enjoying any privacy to nest. As soon as her productivity declines in a year or two, she is removed from the cage and slaughtered for processing (for pot pies or soups), asphyxiated (because her meat is not worth the expense of processing) or sometimes buried alive and composted. Charles Dickens would have a hard time conjuring a grimmer scenario.
The CAFO industry, some farmers and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture insist that factory-farm systems that house thousands of battery cages in a single building are necessary and even better for the birds and for food safety. It's certainly true that all food production systems -- small, medium, and large; organic, pasture-based and industrial; local, national and international -- are prone to risks of contamination. But with tens or hundreds of thousands of animals in close confinement, when something goes wrong inside a CAFO, it can spread far and fast. Contamination can quickly sweep through the integrated production networks of feed and hatcheries, through an animal population and out into the food system. Iowa is a perfect example: Those half a billion recalled eggs came from just two so-called "farms" with 7.5 million hens between them.
Industry is quick to counter-attack that shifting to cage-free, pasture-raised or organic egg laying operations will mean higher check-out prices. Economic conditions being what they are, any talk of rising food prices creates anxiety. Yet that hasn't stopped large numbers of U.S. consumers from flocking to small producers to buy eggs -- even at a premium -- in the wake of this recall.
Fortunately, millions of people are waking up to the consequences of a food system dominated by massive corporations: the loss of regional food production capabilities in the face of impending fuel shortages; tax-funded subsidies that prop up feed grains; antibiotics given to animals that pass into the broader environment; obscene volumes of waste in concentrated areas; a legacy of abysmal treatment to the animals we depend upon for sustenance. For the sake of our health, our environment and our economy, should we let this continue?
Change is in the air. Most countries in Europe and a number of U.S. states have taken measures to ban the most restrictive technologies used in CAFOs, such as the battery cages.
But we need not wait on federal or state regulations. We have a say in the kind of world we want, and it is expressed in the food choices we make every day. It's in our power to participate in a healthier food system, one egg at a time, one farmers market at a time, one meal at a time. It starts with simply understanding and honoring where our food comes from. At that point, the foods produced in CAFOs become a lot less appetizing and ultimately, unpalatable.
This article previously appeared in the Zester Daily.
Further Reading on WorldPoultry.net, a poultry industry publication.