I’ve received far too many questions about the egg recall to single out only one… but what I will do, is do my best to give as thorough of an understanding of how this kind of thing happens and what we can do to avoid this kind of risk in the future.

I’m trying to be as sensitive to the topic as possible, but it isn’t for the very sensitive or faint at heart. There are no gruesome photos within this post.

In the event that you didn’t know (since some areas of the US are unaffected by the recall, it is possible), here’s a brief recap:

A half-billion eggs have been recalled in the nationwide investigation of a salmonella outbreak that Friday expanded to include a second Iowa farm. More than 1,000 people have already been sickened and the toll of illnesses is expected to increase.

Iowa’s Hillandale Farms said Friday it was recalling more than 170 million eggs after laboratory tests confirmed salmonella. The company did not say if its action was connected to the recall by Wright County Egg, another Iowa farm that recalled 380 million eggs earlier this week. The latest recall puts the total number of potentially tainted eggs at over half a billion.

An FDA spokeswoman said the two recalls are related. The strain of salmonella causing the poisoning is the same in both cases, salmonella enteritidis.

The eggs recalled Friday were distributed under the brand names Hillandale Farms, Sunny Farms, Sunny Meadow, Wholesome Farms and West Creek. The new recall applies to eggs sold between April and August.

Hillandale said the eggs were distributed to grocery distribution centers, retail groceries and food service companies which service or are located in fourteen states, including Arkansas, California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. [source]

So… let’s talk about salmonella. Salmonella enteritidis, to be exact. Salmonella is transmitted through feces. Because it lives in the intestinal tract and is passed out through bowel movements, contamination occurs when someone touches feces and – without proper hand washing – touches food. If salmonella enters the body at the start of the digestive cycle, anywhere from 8-72 hours later, problems occur – fevers, stomach aches, cramps and diarrhea. All bad.

Sure, you can get salmonella plenty other ways… but for the intent of what I’m explaining here, this is where I’m going with this.

In hens, if feces touches their feed and enters their mouths, salmonella nests within their ovaries, thus affecting the eggs they lay. Feces can intermingle with their feed by improper cleaning of the hen house, rat droppings, unhygenic workers… whatever. It happens.. and it’s disgusting.

Now, let’s talk about how one farm is able to produce [and, subsequently, recall] 380 million eggs. It’s called factory farming.

You know how a factory has that kind of assembly line style, where everything is organized in a way that allows for the most product to be created as quickly as possible? Factory farming is no different. Factory farming streamlines processes in as tightly organized spaces as possible, in order to maximize output and minimize waste.

It makes sense… except, we’re talking about animals, here. Not even in the “animal rights” sense, here – animals are unpredictible. Animals develop illnesses… contagious… illnesses. Salmonella, for starters. Hens contained in tight spaces where there’s a rat infestation problem are bound to all wind up sharing the same feed infested with the same rat feces. Now, to mitigate the risk of disease in factory farms, hens are given antibiotics. Lots of antibiotics…to help them live in environments they aren’t supposed to live in, like factory farms. As you can see, it’s vital for farmers to be vigilant in keeping hen houses free of infestations… because if not, 380 million eggs can be recalled for fear of spreading the disease into the public.

Speaking of recalls… let’s talk about the FDA. They can’t. Recall, that is. The FDA is not authorized to issue recalls. The FDA can “announce” a recall and, to save face, “order” a recall… but they are not authorized to snatch anything off the market. Consider this:

When a product is defective or harmful to the public, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may order or request a recall of the product from the market. Sometimes, the manufacturers of defective products will voluntarily recall the defective product, while other recalls are ordered by the FDA.

Can the FDA Order a Recall?
The FDA does not have the authority to “order” recalls. Instead, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA may “request” the recall of a harmful consumer product if the manufacturer is unwilling to recall the product without the FDA’s written request. [source]

Going back to the first article I quoted:

Almost 2,000 illnesses from the strain of salmonella linked to both recalls were reported between May and July, almost 1,300 more than usual, Braden said. No deaths have been reported. The CDC is continuing to receive information from state health departments as people report their illnesses.

A situation that originated in May, was allowed to affect “1,300 more [people] than usual” before the public was made aware of the issue… and the FDA can’t do squat. Okay. Got it.

Except… the owner of the Wright County Farm, Jack DeCoster, is someone who generally doesn’t tend to his farm the way he should. Consider the following:

• In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” He cited unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.

• In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a “habitual violator” of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.

• In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.

• In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at six DeCoster egg farms. The farm had been the subject of at least three previous raids.

• In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming – the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms – agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization. [source]

Oh, okay.

One question I was asked was how do we, as consumers, avoid this kind of risk?

The reality is that because there is no frequent or regular monitoring of these farms, and the only thing keeping many of these hens from developing salmonella is whether or not the farmer manages to remember to call The Orkin Man… we’re constantly at risk. Since salmonella can hang out inside the egg shells as well as on the outside, it is ideal to make sure you’re cooking your eggs all the way through as well as washing your hands before and after handling eggs. If you’re baking, be sure your dishes are cooked all the way through, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F.

There’s also the option of purchasing your eggs at a local farm (hey, I have to throw the locavore angle in there.. sorry) where you can see the conditions of the hen house yourself. I don’t eat eggs often – I do buy them when I bake and when I make my mayo – but because of the rarity, it doesn’t hurt too much to buy the eggs from the better-kept chicken. If you’d rather do that, but know it’ll kill your budget… why not eat less eggs? Instead of having two eggs in your omelet, have one and add a variety of peppers. Instead of two scrambled eggs, go for one and add a nice breakfast fruit to your plate. I’d actually taken to using alternatives to eggs in my baking, and while I’m still perfecting that (because that is a craft in itself), it’s proving to be a better option for me already.

Sure, there are the eggs at the store that say “cage free” or “free range (eggs?)” or “these eggs have danced under the Georgia sun”… whatever. None of those claims are regulated or verified by any agency. “Organic” is it (and boy, can it be pricey.) An “organic” label means that an organization has certified this product as not using antibiotics or pesticides to provide you with a healthy product.

I hate to drive home the same point repeatedly, but this is why it is so important to know where your food originates. Cutting out as many middle men as possible – the grocery, the shippers, the factory – not only benefit the environment (no shipping, no gas, no pollution), but benefit your health as well. It’s tough, can be pricey if we don’t alter our habits to accommodate our new food items, and is very frustrating… but the payoff is well worth it.

No one can make those kinds of changes or modifications to their lifestyle overnight, but as they used to say… “knowing is half the battle.” Now that you know, you can make the appropriate changes to your life and do what you need to do.