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Largest Egg Recall in US History Brings Renewed Attention to Dangers of Industrial Farming

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The largest egg recall in US history is bringing renewed attention to the dangers of factory farming and to growing consolidation in the industries responsible for the food many Americans eat. Over half a billion eggs have been ordered off US shelves in the past two weeks following an outbreak of salmonella in the Midwest. Nearly 1,300 cases of people sickened by the eggs have been reported. Despite the size of the recall, responsibility falls on just two factory farms: Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg, both from Iowa. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The largest egg recall in US history is bringing renewed attention on the dangers of factory farming and on growing consolidation in the industries responsible for the food many Americans eat. Over half a billion eggs have been pulled off US shelves in the past two weeks following an outbreak of salmonella in the Midwest. Nearly 1,300 cases of people sickened by the eggs have been reported.

Despite the size of the recall, responsibility falls on just two factory farms: Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg, both from Iowa. Both farms have also been linked to health, safety and employment violations. Wright County Egg was once cited for having its workers handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands. Neither factory had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight: the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

In an interview with CNN, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg acknowledged the factory farms linked to the outbreak had violated safety rules.

    MARGARET HAMBURG: There is no question that these farms that are involved in the recall were not operating with the standards of practice that we consider responsible. And it’s very, very important that those practices be cleaned up and that we work with this company and with others to make sure that they have the preventive controls in place and the responsible measures in place that will enable the safest food supply possible.

AMY GOODMAN: The FDA commissioner, Hamburg, went on to urge passage of food safety legislation that’s stalled in the Senate since the House approved it just over a year ago. The measure would allow the FDA to order a recall instead of leaving it up to corporations to voluntarily do so. The bill would also require mandatory safety plans, increase FDA oversight, and make it easier to determine the source of contamination.

For more on the egg recall and what it could tell us about the food we eat, we’re joined by two guests. Joining us from Washington, DC, Patty Lovera, assistant director of the food safety group Food & Water Watch. And here in New York, David Kirby, journalist and author of the book Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms on Humans and the Environment. His latest article in the Huffington Post is called “Lessons from the Egg Recall: Cheap Food Makes You Sick.”

OK, David Kirby, let’s start there. What do you mean?

DAVID KIRBY: Well, these are the cheapest eggs on the market. The reason they are cheap is because they are mass-produced in these giant, often filthy factories, given substandard feed, in conditions that you would never raise a dog or any other animal. The drive for cheap food has a created a consolidated food production system that pushes out small and independent producers that tend to produce higher-quality food. Chickens that live in a sustainable farm produce eggs that are far less likely to be contaminated with something like salmonella than these big factories, which, as you mentioned, are basically allowed to police themselves. And we need much stricter not only regulations, but we need enforcement of the regulations. Right now we’re operating on the honor system. And this is food that we feed our families. This should be the most highly regulated industry.

AMY GOODMAN: These two factory farms in Iowa, under, what, thirty or so different names, are now being recalled, something like a half a billion eggs. Two farms, half a billion eggs.

DAVID KIRBY: Again, that shows you the scale of these operations. It’s possible to have salmonella in a small organic farm — much less likely — but if that happens, you’re only talking about maybe a few thousand eggs. In this case, we’re talking about half a billion eggs. Now these farms are — or factories, really, are associated with a company called DeCoster. And when I was in Iowa and in other states in the Midwest, that name came up over and over again. This company has a whole series of violations. But we have to remember, this is not the first time that salmonella has been found in eggs. This happens to be one of the biggest outbreaks, but this has been plaguing the egg industry for the last twenty years or so, ever since modernization/industrialization really came into place.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Patty Lovera, and let’s follow up on DeCoster. Both the factory farms that are affected in this recall are linked to a businessman named Austin DeCoster, who has a record of health, safety and employment violations. As we reported yesterday, in 1997 his company, DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed to pay a $2 million fine after then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions at his farm were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” In 2002, DeCoster’s company paid one-and-a-half million dollars to settle a lawsuit filed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, rape, abuse and retaliation by supervisors at his plants. And earlier this summer, another company linked to DeCoster paid out $125,000 to the state of Maine over animal cruelty allegations. Patty Lovera, talk about DeCoster and his eggs.

PATTY LOVERA: Well, I mean, DeCoster is a name you hear a lot when you start talking to people either who are — know about the egg industry or are from Iowa or Ohio or the other states that he operates in. And so, we think it’s — basically he’s kind of a poster child for what happens when we see this type of consolidation and this scale of production. It’s not just food safety or just environmental damage or, you know, how workers are treated. It’s a whole package of negative side effects when we have this type of massive production responsible for so much of our food.

So, you know, the two firms involved in this recall, it appears that they had a common supplier of feed. They may have had a common supplier of the baby chickens, which are eventually going to lay the eggs. We’ve seen consolidation through every step of this chain. And what that does is puts so much power in — to make decisions about how our food is raised, with people like Jack DeCoster or his family, and not us. You know, we see a lot of brand names in the store, but we don’t really have a choice, because we have such consolidation, so much of the food is coming from a tiny number of companies.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the legislation now in Congress.

PATTY LOVERA: So, a food safety legislation passed the House last summer, and it’s been waiting for its turn in the Senate. And so, it would basically be an overhaul of what the Food and Drug Administration does. The FDA is responsible for shell eggs, which is what’s involved in this recall; for produce, fruits and vegetables; for processed foods. And so, it’s really taking a look at their whole regulatory system. You know, they don’t have the same model as meat inspection. A lot of people are familiar with what the USDA does: they’re in the plant inspecting meat, because they have a law that tells them to do that. The FDA doesn’t have that mandate. They have a much more kind of guidance-oriented mandate. And so, for years, they’ve been saying, “These are best practices. Please follow them,” you know, and they don’t have this culture and this authority to go out and inspect. So this legislation is one attempt to do that. It’s been a long slog to try to get to this point. There are still things to be worked out, but it would give FDA mandatory recall authority, which they currently don’t have, and it would set up some schedule of inspections, where they get to food-processing plants more regularly than they do now. You know, there’s a lot of detail still to be worked out about how often those inspections would happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Who fights the legislation that would allow there to be something other than a voluntary recall by the corporations, which would take an enormous amount of evidence for them to do, Patty?

PATTY LOVERA: So, I mean, historically, there’s always been industry resistance to any food safety regulation, whether it’s in Congress or through the agencies. And so, you know, there’s large trade associations for every sector of our food supply, starting from, you know, the large agribusiness-type producers all the way through to the grocery stores. Interestingly, on this food safety legislation in the last year or so, seen a lot less public, at least, resistance to this legislation, because the industry is getting such a black eye from all these big recalls.

But on eggs specifically, a rule — you know, not legislation, but a rule — from FDA was proposed in the Clinton administration on salmonella in eggs. It just went into effect last month, because there was so much pressure for so many years to stall it that it took, you know, over a decade to get these rules through saying, “Here are steps you should do to prevent salmonella.” So it’s just one example of how hard it is to get new regulation on anybody in the food industry.

AMY GOODMAN: The legislation called S.510 in the Senate right now. Patty Lovera, there’s also another hearing on Friday. Explain what these hearings are that are traveling around the country.

PATTY LOVERA: Yeah, this is a really interesting opportunity, we think, that — Food & Water Watch — that we have this year. So, sadly, it’s historic, but the federal government is, for the first time, doing some hearings around the country to talk about competition in agriculture, you know, to look at this issue of consolidation. Are these markets fair? Can everybody of all different sizes of farms, can they compete? Do they have options to be in agriculture anymore? And so, there have been three already around the country. The fourth one is in Colorado on Friday, and it’s focused on livestock markets. And so, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Agriculture will be there, and they’re going to spend a full day. And we were hearing that thousands of people, lots of them cattle producers and hog producers, are coming. And we hope it’s a good airing of these issues that these companies have so much power, they’ve consolidated so much of the market under their control that small family-sized farms, independent operators are just shut out. And so, it’s long overdue. And so they’re doing five hearings in total over the course of this year. And then the million-dollar question is, what do we get after the hearings? What kind of action are we going to see from the government in terms of antitrust and just basic regulations about whether these markets are operating fairly?

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the family and community farms in these hearings?

PATTY LOVERA: Well, so far, I’ve been to the three that have happened already, and so far there’s been a pretty good, you know, airing of the problems. It’s been a good opportunity for folks to either be — you know, there’s official panels where people make official testimony. And, of course, both sides have to be represented, so there’s lots of large-scale producers saying how everything is great. But there’s also been, you know, a good number of independent, family-scale operators saying the rules are rigged, you know, this is not a level playing field, we need a referee, and we need these companies that buy our animals or buy our crops to act in good faith, which they’re not doing often. And so, there’s been a pretty good airing of the problem. There’s been a couple of, you know, chunks where people can just stand up and make a public comment, and people have been doing that. And so, I don’t think that the government can claim there’s not a problem, if they’re listening at these hearings. The question is, what we’re going to make them do about it when they’re wrapped up.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that you mention that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is going to be at this hearing on Friday. We know where he’s going to be today: he’s going to be meeting this morning with Shirley Sherrod. She told CNN she was offered the position of Deputy Director of Advocacy and Outreach, working to improve the department’s image. Of course, Shirley Sherrod is the — was the victim of the edited videotape of a speech she gave before the NAACP. So Vilsack and Sherrod are meeting for the first time this morning.

Patty Lovera, thanks so much for being with us, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. David Kirby, I’d like to ask you to stay with us, as we continue to talk about not only eggs, but the looming threat of industrial pig, dairy and poultry farms on humans and the environment. This is Democracy Now! Thanks so much for being with us. We’ll be back in a minute.

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David Kirby on “The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms on Humans and the Environment”

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