Saturday, August 21, 2010

Somewhere Inside the Egg System

When times are tight, taking a risk on the food you eat doesn’t seem like such a good idea.

This thought comes up because of the ongoing egg recall, which now has expanded to two factories, 24 brands, 480 million eggs, as authorities try to get a handle on a widespread salmonella epidemic that officially has affected thousands of people (considering the low reporting rate with salmonella, the actual number may be approaching 1 million). It‘s that third number that tends to amaze people — 480 million contaminated eggs would, in theory, be enough to sicken everyone in North America. I wish people would pay more attention to the second number. How can eggs from one factory be sold under so many different brands? The troubling answer is that, with most brands of eggs, the brand doesn’t tell you a thing about where the eggs came from. Names like Hillandale Farms, Farm Fresh, and Mountain Dairy are designed to make you imagine that the eggs are coming from a specific farm, and that isn’t really true. All these brands really tell you, if you want to know the truth, is that you are getting eggs from the egg system — from the inside of some egg factory somewhere in the country.

The news media is still calling these egg production facilities “farms,” but when you see the big, tall, blocky concrete building with fluorescent lights, conveyor belts, smokestack, and the constant whir of machinery, “farm” is not the word that comes to mind. And the reason the egg factories want to be known as farms has to do with disease. When you picture chickens running around a barnyard, you’re imagining chickens that possibly have a chance of living a healthy life. The actual scene, with millions of chickens packed into tight quarters in a building that produces so much feces you can smell it from a mile away, makes disease inevitable. Ordinarily, the chickens’ diseases aren’t readily transmitted to the eggs, but the weaker the chickens are, the weaker the egg shells are, and the less protection they provide.

The salmonella epidemic and egg recall are, appropriately, getting widespread attention in the news, and inevitably, some people will react by deciding that eating eggs is not so important. And of course, eggs aren’t important in a nutritional sense. Eggs are high in protein and fat and otherwise nutritionally unimpressive. Most people eat too much protein and fat even without eating eggs, so they won’t lose anything by skipping the eggs. Nor are eggs cheap. Even without adding in the cost of a possible illness, eggs cost a lot for something that is mostly water, fat, and protein. Eggs can never be cheaper than bread, because to get one egg out of a chicken, a factory has to feed the chicken more than enough grain to make a loaf of bread.

Of course, most people won’t react to the news, and many will take their chances and eat the eggs that have been recalled. The number of eggs recalled, 480 million, is only theoretical anyway. Realistically, the vast majority of the eggs listed in the recall, which goes back through months of production, were already consumed or discarded before the initial recall was announced. And realistically, only a small fraction of the recalled eggs that are in home refrigerators will be returned. Even people who try to check the eggs could make mistakes — it’s not that easy to match up code numbers and Julian dates. And realistically, less than half of the high-risk eggs out there are covered by the recall. And realistically, the investigation is not likely to produce a meaningful reform in the way egg factories work. So if some people are taking the salmonella epidemic as an indictment of the whole egg system, that is not an unreasonable response.