Cracking the shell of factory farming and public health
by Sarah Hutcherson, guest writer; illustration by Annabel Wheeler, staff artist
This summer, I fell victim to the headlines warning consumers to beware of the salmonella outbreak found in eggs across the country. And just like that, my breakfast went from a toasted bagel complemented by freshly scrambled eggs and fried bacon to instant oatmeal made edible with the push of a button. Newspaper headlines reminded me that the egg recall was not about hundreds or thousands of eggs, but millions. According to the New York Times, the salmonella outbreak sickened thousands of Americans. Though my friends called me paranoid, I did not want to add myself to this number, so I stubbornly continued my far-from-appetizing breakfast regimen.
After one week, I reached my breaking point. I ventured to my local Price Chopper and stood in front of the hundreds of egg cartons. There were more than seven types of eggs, ranging from cage-free to Omega-3 enriched, from standard to organic. The variety overwhelmed me—how was I supposed to know what each label signified? Why were organic and cage-free eggs more expensive? I needed to become a more informed consumer so as not to fall victim to ignorance regarding egg producers’ practices.
It wasn’t until I learned that millions of the recalled eggs came from just two farms in Iowa that I realized our eggs were mass-produced on such a large scale. In my opinion (and that of many others), this industrial production process is what led to the salmonella outbreak. Mass-production of eggs makes Americans more susceptible to diseases like salmonella because of industrial farms’ efforts to produce low-cost and, paradoxically, sanitary eggs.
In their efforts to save money, farms, including the two in Iowa, try to minimize the cost of the chickens, cages, feed, and everything else involved in egg production. These spending cuts lead to shortcuts in the sanitation process, which leave eggs more susceptible to bacterial diseases.
Industrial farms treat hens as objects, not animals, and clean their eggs with chemicals and antibiotics. The recalled eggs produced at the Iowan farms were standard eggs, the cheapest type available at the grocery store. But we pay the price with risks to our health and safety when we buy them. According to the Humane Society, industrial farms keep seven to eight hens in five-square-foot battery cages where they have an average of sixty-seven square inches to live. Since there are so many chickens living in close proximity, high levels of “contaminated airborne fecal dust” can cause egg contamination.
Pests and rodents that live in the hens’ manure grounds contribute to the problem, carrying disease and bacteria to the hens. If a rodent goes into a battery cage to grab a snack, it can carry the disease from the manure grounds on its body or within its own feces and transmit it into the chickens’ feed, easily infecting the chickens with salmonella or other bacterial diseases. Since the chickens live in such close quarters and the battery cages are rarely cleaned, bacteria thrive and multiply.
According to the Brazilian Poultry Journal, it is “intrinsically difficult to clean and disinfect [battery cages] to a good standard.” As a result of industrial farms’ inability to sanitize and ensure clean practices, our eggs are more prone to carry disease.
Adding to the problem, industrial farms maximize their profits by feeding chickens oyster shells and other substances, collectively known as “grit.” Chickens’ digestive tracks become infested with indigestible remnants of grit, which is high-protein but often also includes sand-based quartz. Antibiotics and chemicals that chickens consume along with their unnatural daily diet affect their eggs’ nutritional benefits. It is important to remember that, as a consumer, your body processes whatever the chicken ingests. Do you really want these inorganic chemicals in your system? Furthermore, digestive bacteria can grow resistant to antibiotics in a chicken’s body. As a result, diseases can spread among chickens quickly, making their eggs disease-ridden—all because the industry wants to make a couple more dollars.
Ironically, industrial farms’ major downfall comes from their objective of producing a completely sanitary egg. But what defines a sanitary egg? The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulates egg production, and mandates that eggs be washed in ammonia so that bacteria are removed from the egg’s shell. The problem is that ammonia wash cannot kill life-threatening bacteria such as salmonella. Furthermore, dipping a live egg in ammonia removes its protein coating, or “bloom,” allowing disease to seep in more easily through the shell’s tiny pores. As a result, the mechanized mass production process leaves consumers much more vulnerable to disease.
Organic eggs undergo only a slightly different method of production. Mass production is the norm in farming now, and even organic chickens do not get regular access to the outdoors and may still live in battery cages. The difference between organic and regular production, then, lies in what the chickens are fed. Organic chickens consume organic feed, which is certainly a healthier alternative to quartz and grit. We pay a few dollars more for organic eggs because the hens’ feed is pricier, but we benefit from the fact that they have not been exposed to unnecessary antibiotics and chemicals.
Nevertheless, it is possible to farm eggs in clean, outdoor conditions. A Joyful Farm, an organic farm in Black Forest, Colorado owned by Craig McHugh, serves as a prime example. McHugh’s eggs are classified as cage-free and pasture-raised. Cage-free eggs are produced by chickens that are free to walk around but are still kept inside without natural sunlight, while pasture-raised chickens roam the outdoors freely. In order to maintain the integrity of his production process, he chooses only to sell his eggs at farmers’ markets.
McHugh explained the process behind his egg production: The eggs are laid in stalls layered with wood shavings that he cleans about once a month. These wood shavings create what he calls a “poop sandwich,” in which the feces begin to compost, hindering parasites from living in the chickens’ home. The absence of parasites creates a more sanitary environment, in which harmful bacteria are less likely to infect the egg. Every morning, McHugh lets the chickens out all day long so that they are able to exercise and enjoy the sunshine as well as eat “green goodies.” McHugh’s message is that eggs (and hens, for that matter) are living beings and we must treat them as such—a fact foreign to industrial egg producers.
As you can see, the industrial farms’ desire to make money leaves consumers vulnerable to the consequences of their insufficient techniques for producing a healthy egg. McHugh reminds us of how the egg production process can be sanitary and biologically friendly. His practices oppose those of industrial farmers who treat eggs as machine-made products. The salmonella outbreak this summer is a reminder of how the industrial farms’ practices are endangering the egg consumers in our country. Every time I bite into an omelet, I am reminded of the mass production that the eggs went through to become part of my breakfast. As consumers become more aware, I hope we can demand safer production techniques from the industrial farms. The more that industrial farms treat eggs as living things, the lesser the risk that consumers will be at risk of dangerous diseases.