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Greed and Salmonella: A Deadly Duo
For years, the U.S. egg industry has been telling us that there is no connection between salmonella outbreaks and the practice of cramming layer hens into cages so small the birds can’t lift a wing. It’s been their party line for so long they may actually have begun to believe it. In 2011, the leading U.S. egg industry trade group announced, true to form, that caging hens is “better for food safety.”
With more than 95 percent of all U.S. eggs currently coming from caged hens, and salmonella outbreaks sickening more than one million Americans every year, this isn’t merely an academic debate. Salmonella poisons people, causing a nasty, painful disease that can be fatal to the very young, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system.
As you’ve probably heard, we have been experiencing a string of salmonella outbreaks caused by bad eggs. More than 500 million eggs were recalled in one two-week period a little over a year ago. And once again, industry representatives claimed the problem had nothing to do with the practice of housing hens for their entire lives in cages where they are barely able to move. Anyone who tells you otherwise, they say, is probably an animal rights zealot with a hidden agenda.
But the science speaks for itself. There have been nine scientific studies published on the issue in the last five years in peer-reviewed journals. Every single one of them has found increased salmonella rates in eggs coming from facilities that confine hens in cages. A 2010 article in World Poultry, aptly titled “Salmonella Thrives in Cage Housing,” found that eggs from hens kept in cages consistently carry an increased risk of salmonella.
The Humane Society of the United States recently began an ad campaign pointing out that every one of the more than half a billion eggs involved in a recent large-scale recall came from hens crammed into cages. The practice of forcing egg-laying hens to live their entire lives in tiny cages so small they can’t take a single step isn’t just an animal welfare concern, say the ads. It is a public health issue.
Should we be suspicious of the HSUS? The group is, of course, fundamentally an animal protection organization. But does that automatically mean they are stretching the truth? Not according to a study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology. The study suggests that by switching to cage-free production systems, the egg industry could likely reduce the risk of salmonella to the American public from bad eggs by 50 percent.
How do you think the egg industry is taking all this? Are they afraid of being held financially accountable for the damage to human health caused by their tainted products? Not really, for they rest secure in the knowledge that America’s food-safety systems have been designed, not to protect public health, but to protect agribusiness from liability.
So why rock the boat?
Well, because the boat is already rocking. As of January 2012, it became illegal to house laying hens in cages anywhere in the European Union. In the U.S., the states of Michigan and California have already passed laws phasing out the practice of confining hens in cages. In California, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill in 2010 requiring that all whole eggs sold in the state be cage-free by 2015. And other states are considering similar legislation.
The egg industry defends the status quo by threatening that healthier eggs from better-treated birds would be vastly more expensive, and thus would mean more malnutrition among the poor. It’s a powerful argument, except it’s not true. If you factor in the economies of scale, going cage-free need add only about a penny per egg to the retail price.
This is why a number of major fast-food companies, including Burger King, Subway and Wendy’s, and retailers including Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Walmart, have made various levels of commitment to purchasing or selling cage-free eggs. And why major food companies like Hellmann’s (called Best Foods in Western states), which uses 350 million eggs a year in its mayonnaise, have announced they are going 100 percent cage-free.
McDonald’s in the U.S. has been a little slower to get the message. One of the burger giant’s executives recently said he didn’t think hens “should be treated like queens.” But does going “cage-free” mean the hens will be treated like royalty? Far from it. Cage-free does not mean cruelty-free. But at least cage-free hens will have two to three times more space per bird than caged hens. And unlike caged hens, they will be able to stand up, fully extend their limbs, lie down and turn around.
From an animal welfare point of view, cage-free eggs are far from perfect, but they are better. And from a public health perspective, cage-free eggs are a necessary and urgently needed improvement.
What can you do?
Take the HSUS “cage-free pledge.”
Never eat raw eggs.
Don’t spend extra for brown eggs. They aren’t any more nutritious than white eggs; they are just from a different breed of hens.
Don’t be fooled by eggs that claim they are produced without added hormones. That sounds nice, but is meaningless. No hormones are currently approved for use in U.S. egg production.
Be aware that the egg industry has been eager to co-opt the language of humane farming. As awareness of the horrors of egg factory farms has been growing in recent years, the industry trade group United Egg Producers responded, not by improving conditions, but by labeling cartons of eggs “Animal Care Certified.” In actuality, this “certification” was only the industry’s misleading attempt to whitewash its tarnished image. After legal action forced them to remove the meaningless label, the industry came up with yet another bogus attempt to hoodwink the public. Egg cartons that say “Produced in Compliance with United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry Guidelines” are designed to help you feel safe and confident as you purchase eggs that come from filthy disease mills, including the very facilities whose salmonella-infected eggs are the target of the recent spate of recalls.
At the moment, cage-free, free-range and organic eggs are indeed slightly more expensive. Are they worth the added cost? That’s up to the buyer to decide. But the more you learn, the more able you are to make informed choices. When you include the risk of salmonella poisoning, when you take into account the differences in flavor and nutrition, and when you factor in the degree of animal cruelty involved, getting away from eggs that come from concentration-camp chickens starts to seem less like a luxury. The more you know, the more it seems like an ethical and health imperative.
Reprinted with permission from Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC., No Happy Cows by John Robbins is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at redwheelweiser.com.
Groomed to follow in the footsteps of his father, founder of the Baskin-Robbins empire, John Robbins chose a different path for himself, becoming a social activist and fierce advocate for plant-strong diets and compassionate living. John Robbins is the author of The Food Revolution, Diet for a New America, Reclaiming Our Health, and The New Good Life. His life and work have been featured on the PBS special Diet for a New America, and he has won numerous awards for his pioneering work, including the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He lives with his family in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Visit him at johnrobbins.info.