By now, you may have heard that the source of the recent salmonella outbreak is a single egg baron in Iowa, Austin “Jack” DeCoster. What you might not have heard: He’s just as reckless with his human employees as with his hens.
At Grist, Tom Philpott reports that in 2002, five undocumented female migrant workers brought criminal charges alleging that they had been raped by supervisors while at work. In a subsequent EEOC lawsuit, DeCoster settled for $1.5 million dollars. He has also been fined for housing immigrant workers in deplorable rat-infested conditions , for having employees handle dead animals and manure with their bare hands, and for repeated water-safety violations (some stemming from his hog farms). Philpott concludes:
The outrage here is not that Wright County Eggs has released nearly half a billion tainted eggs into the market, exposing untold numbers of people to sickness. DeCoster’s record of abuse — of people and the environment — has taught anyone who’s paying attention to expect such things from his operations.
The outrage is that regulatory authorities at both the state and national levels have allowed him to continue hiring workers and producing food as violations piled up.
Yes. But the problem isn’t just Jack DeCoster, even if the current outbreak is traceable entirely to his operations. It also goes beyond our lax regulations and their even laxer enforcement. The issue goes to the core of how we eat: our dependence on large-scale farming.
As I noted when swine flu first emerged, factory farming is a public health threat on a number of levels, including the breeding of novel viruses and bacteria. In addition, such farms routinely use antibiotics to control the diseases that inevitably erupt when you concentrate thousands or hundreds of thousands (!!) of animals. This is creating a perfect chance for bacteria to mutate into drug-resistant forms. It’s undermining our ability to effectively treat human diseases. And while some industrial farming operations may treat their workers well, DeCoster is not alone in exploiting them.
The overall problem is that industrial agriculture is geared to making profits, first and foremost – and the quest for profit-maximization has eclipsed human values. This has happened in many industries, of course, but it can be deadly in agriculture because of its direct impact on our food supply and public health.
DeCoster exemplifies sheer callousness to the human and animal wreckage he and his ilk have fostered.
- The hens crowded together, suffering from mutual aggression and sitting in their own feces.
- Their chicks, sickened with salmonella, who brought the infection to another industrial egg operation.
- The undocumented women whose bodily integrity was violated by supervisors who exploited a lawless atmosphere.
- All the other workers living and working in filth.
- And now the rest of us, who could be infected by a simple sunny-side up egg.
Thorough cooking kills salmonella, as Salon’s Francis Lam reminds us. From my own experience, I know that’s not quite enough. The cook who handled the raw eggs needs to wash her or his hands very thoroughly. The worst “tummy flu” I’ve had hit me after I’d boiled a bunch of eggs for dyeing at Easter and, distracted by a house full of company, hadn’t paid much heed to hand-washing. I was the only person who got sick, but I was down for a week, so immobilized that a girlfriend had to drop by to check on me and deliver ginger ale. I’m sure it was salmonella, caught from the shells. I can be glad I was young and healthy when it hit. And yes, those eggs came from factory farms (albeit in Germany, so they were subject to some regulation).
These days, I buy Kroger’s organic free-range eggs when I don’t have a local source. When my friends’ chickens are laying, I don’t have to buy eggs at all (and they just gave me three this evening – yippee!). There’s never a perfect guarantee of safe food, but our odds improve dramatically when we don’t rely on industrial mass production. And when we eat an egg from happy hens, we can be pretty confident that no humans have been treated cruelly, either.