Large or small-scale eggs, is one safer?

Elizabeth Weise of USA Today writes in a story just posted on-line that there is nothing small scale about Pearl Valley Eggs, deep in the heart of Illinois farm country. The egg farm itself, two miles south of the nearest town, is a neat collection of 350-foot- and 450-foot henhouses covered in white steel siding. They’re linked by overhead pipes that bring in ground corn and soybeans from the farm’s own feed mill and conveyor belts that take out chicken poop.

The farm employs 100 people and produces 800,000 to 850,000 eggs a day, seven days a week.

Yet, in the face of the nation’s largest recorded egg recall, a total of 550 million eggs potentially infected with salmonella enteritidis, and revelations of filthy conditions at the two Iowa egg farms involved, many animal rights groups and organic supporters have pointed a finger of blame at industrial animal agriculture.

Ben Thompson, 30, who runs Pearl Valley Eggs with his father, Dave, who founded the business in 1987 and now houses 1.1 million Shaver chickens in seven henhouses, says since the Thompsons began testing a decade ago, the farm has never once had a positive test for salmonella enteritidis.

The story says there is a definite link between large flock size and salmonella. On average, large-scale U.S. layer operations with more than 100,000 hens per house are four times more likely to test positive for salmonella enteritidis than smaller houses with fewer than 100,000 hens, according to a paper set for publication in January in the journal Poultry Science. The report suggests that one reason might be that salmonella is transmitted in contaminated feces and dust, and higher densities of birds mean more of both.

At the same time, scientists caution that there haven’t been good studies to show the rate of salmonella infection in equally large flocks that are cage free.

Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says, "It is about management — each type (of production method) has its advantages and disadvantages."

At Pearl Valley, Dave Thompson says happy hens, safe eggs and making a profit are possible, but it takes a lot of attention to detail and spending 12 hours a day, seven days a week in the barns. "I take good care of my birds and my wife, and I put every penny back into the farm."

Faith-based food safety

Michael Batz sent me a link to a story that took me on a magic carpet ride to the past (Batz also says he coined the term, ‘faith-based food safety’ but maybe he’s on his own magic carpet).

As an undergraduate university student some 25 years ago, I would read the N.Y. Times and Harper’s magazine, and marvel at the sentence structure and the issues that were exposed by hard-hitting journalists.

But over time, my own knowledge increased, and I realized that several of these exposes were really just literary clichés, citing a few sources here and there, usually to validate a pre-existing ideal.

The initial realization was sorta gross (and yes, Michael Pollan was an editor of Harper’s back then, developing the skill set of a committed demagogue rather than investigative journalist).

The same techniques are on full display at the Atlantic Food Channel in a piece by Josh Viertel entitled, Why small farms are safer.

The author offers absolutely no evidence why small farms are safer, but does drop that he studied philosophy, his educated customers may be dumb, rides barefoot in buses and that Subway subs smell of industrial food.

If wannabe farmer Josh wanted to convince anyone that small farms were safer, he would present outbreak data, and rather than saying what his farm isn’t – sorta like organics isn’t GE, isn’t synthetic pesticides, isn’t whatever – he’d state what his farm did to ensure food safety, specifically water quality and testing, soil amendments and employee sanitation.

The author even whines that in 2006, he had trouble moving his spinach crop “all because Cargill’s cows pooped in Dole’s lettuce. It didn’t seem right then. It doesn’t now.”

Except it was poop from a grass-fed cow-calf operation that contaminated the transitional organic spinach in 2006 that sickened over 200 and killed 5.

Data often interferes with demagogues.

Local food is not inherently safer food

The idea that food grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is the product of wishful thinking.

Barry Estabrook of Gourmet magazine is the latest to invoke the local is pure fantasy, writing,

“There is no doubt that our food-safety system is broken. But with the vast majority of disease outbreaks coming from industrial-scale operations, legislators should have fixed the problems there instead of targeting small, local businesses that were never part of the problem in the first place.”

As soon as someone says there’s “no doubt” I am filled with doubt about the quality of the statement that is about to follow.

Foodborne illness is vastly underreported — it’s known as the burden of reporting foodborne illness. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, go to a doctor that is bright enough to order the right test, live in a state that has the known foodborne illnesses as a reportable disease, and then it gets registered by the feds. For every known case of foodborne illness, there are 10 -300 other cases, depending on the severity of the bug.??????

Most foodborne illness is never detected. It’s almost never the last meal someone ate, or whatever other mythologies are out there. A stool sample linked with some epidemiology or food testing is required to make associations with specific foods. ??????Newsweek has an excellent article this week about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and its Disease Detective Camp, where teenagers learn how to form a hypothesis about a disease outbreak and conduct an investigation. The key lies only partly in state-of-the-art technology. At least half the challenge is figuring out the right questions to ask. Who has contracted the disease? Where have they been? Why were they exposed to this pathogen?

Maybe the vast majority of foodborne outbreaks come from industrial-scale operations because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from industrial-scale operations. To accurately compare local and other food, a database would have to somehow be constructed so that a comparison of illnesses on a per capita meal or even ingredient basis could be made. ???