Big egg farms don’t mean dirty egg farms.

Newly released reports pointing to years of positive salmonella tests at an Iowa egg facility have baffled some experts and egg producers.

Elizabeth Weise writes in today’s USA Today that Congressional investigators have obtained records that show Wright County Egg had evidence of even more problems than filth and vermin, as reported by the Food and Drug Administration last month. The records show that over the past three years, Wright County, the company at the center of the outbreak that sickened about 1,519 people and led to the recall of 550 million eggs, had multiple positive tests for salmonella in its plant that it did not report.

Numbers that high over that time period indicate "the environmental contamination is widespread on these farms," says Darrell Trampel, professor of production animal medicine at Iowa State University in Ames. "Maybe six to 12 positives … wouldn’t be surprising, but 73 is relatively high."

Besides, "if he’s getting repeated positives back on consecutive tests, that tells you that you’re not getting to the root cause of what the problem is," says Patricia Curtis, director of the poultry products safety program at Auburn University in Alabama.

Dave Thompson, owner of Pearl Valley Eggs in Pearl City, Ill., who produces 800,000 to 850,000 eggs a day, seven days a week, and was featured in a Weise report last month, says he can’t imagine getting numbers like Wright County’s. "I’ve never had a positive, and I test all the time," he says.

Under FDA rules put into place in July, large egg production facilities that have positive tests for salmonella enteritidis will be required to test 1,000 eggs four times at two-week intervals. "If even one egg tests positive, it’s mandatory that those eggs … be pasteurized," Trampel says.

Big ag doesn’t mean bad ag. Organic or conventional, local or global, big or small, there are good farmers and bad farmers. The good ones know all about food safety and continuously work to minimize levels of risk.

Consumers have no way of knowing which eggs or foods were produced by microbiologically prudent farmers and which were produced on dumps. Market microbial food safety at retail so consumers can choose.

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."

Nosestretcher alert: small farms produce safest food?

Are small farms incompatible with food safety rules?

Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA), said today,

"Small farms produce the safest food available, without regulation. … Just like family farms brought us out of the Great Depression, they can bring us out of the food safety problem and this recession, if they are allowed to thrive.”

Sounds like someone is compensating for inadequacy issues and responding with exaggeration, like a 50-year-old in a Miata rag-top.

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.?

Maybe the majority of foodborne outbreaks come from large farms because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from food produced on large farms. 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.

NICFA is gonna lobby Washington, D.C. types and then hold a local foods feast for Congress tomorrow night. I hope no one gets sick – faith-based food safety is a lousy approach.

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.

Congressional food safety conspiracies – small farms will be criminal

The New York Times picked up on the burgeoning food safety conspiracy theory business that’s been flooding the Intertubes.

There’s been a lot of outbreaks of foodborne illness and a lot of people barfing. So politicians have been busy bill-making bees, with numerous proposals before the U.S. House and Senate.

As the Times story put it,

“… small farmers, who are most accountable for their food’s freshness and health, may suffer the heaviest burden under proposed new food rules. … Small farmers argue that they are already much more accountable to their customers for the quality of their product than are mass-production facilities, and that they will be crushed under the weight of well-meaning laws aimed at large industrial offenders.”

Farmers, regardless of size, are accountable for food’s freshness and health, and more importantly, the microbial food safety of that food. Farmers, big and small, are accountable to their customers. Small is not better, and there is no evidence that smaller is safer. Small, local, organic, whatever, can be microbiologically safe, but that requires attention to sources of dangerous microorganisms and effective measures to reduce levels of risk – regardless of farm size.

And before someone chimes in with the smaller-is-easier-to-trace-and-contain line, there is no evidence to support that argument other than wishful thinking. To make an effective comparison, the number of illnesses per conventional or local/small/organic meal consumed would have to be calculated. And because a lot more people eat, say, conventional tomatoes compared to local/small/organic tomatoes, illnesses with conventional product are more likely to be detected. The data simply is not available to make any meaningful comparison.

What can be said is that local/small/organic is a lifestyle choice. And like any lifestyle choice, go for it but play safe. Try not to make people barf  and even embrace evidence-based microbiologically safe food. Sales will probably increase.

Back to the story. Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, said,

"Organic standards specifically say you are supposed to cultivate the wild land on your farm, and having the area filter water has a lot of benefits. One of the principles is just that — we’re going to farm in a way that’s not disruptive to nature."

Farming is not natural; any type of farming is disruptive to nature. So produce food in a way that minimizes the impact on the natural environment, and doesn’t make people barf. But that isn’t what organic is about. As Katija and I showed in our 2004 paper, organic guidelines could be adjusted to incorporate microbial food safety standards, but as they stand, organic standards are a specification for growing organic — not microbiologically safe — food.

The best and most dangerous mythology in the story is this:

Critics say the rules unfairly penalize small farmers who grow crops and raise cattle on the same farm, while failing to address what they believe is the root of the E. coli problem — large, mismanaged feedlots that cram cattle together and spew waste runoff.

A percentage of all ruminants carry E. coli O157:H7. Feedlots are an easy target. But there are lots of outbreaks. Like E. coli O157:H7 in spinach in 2006 that sickened 200 and killed at least three. The source of the E. coli O157:H7 in the transitional organic spinach was a neighboring cow-calf operation – not a feedlot.

Any bill that gets past the discussion stage will be considerably modified and even if passed into law will accomplish … nothing. Conspiracy theories are fun, as is busy bee bill making, but will either result in fewer sick people? Growers, processors, retailers, restaurants and consumers should do what they can today to produce microbiologically safe food.