Don't Walk on Egg Shells When It Comes to Food Safety

Our egg industry is an emblem of industrialized animal agribusiness -- a system that jeopardizes the health of American consumers each and every day, institutionally abuses animals, and pollutes our seas and waterways.
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Like many of you, I am shocked by the recent recall of over half a billion eggs. However, what is so stunning to me is not the sheer magnitude of the recall. Rather, I'm shocked that this is the first offense perpetrated by the egg industry large enough to trigger America's outrage regarding food safety. Our egg industry is an emblem of industrialized animal agribusiness -- a system that jeopardizes the health of American consumers each and every day, institutionally abuses animals, and pollutes our seas and waterways.

The Food and Drug Administration estimates that each year, 142,000 Americans are sickened by egg-borne Salmonella. Tragically, Salmonella is the top cause of food-poisoning related deaths in the United States. The conditions that created this widespread contamination are hardly an aberration -- they are typical of an industry in dire need of reform. The facilities where the eggs originated are both factories (I won't call them farms) that confine millions of hens in cages smaller than a sheet of paper. Every one of the recalled eggs comes from a caged hen. Nearly 280 million hens are confined in cages across the country.

I have seen industrialized egg factories firsthand as part of my work with the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. These operations are literally nauseating: Airborne fecal dust chokes the air, facilitating the spread of Salmonella among birds packed beak-to-beak. Massive stacks of tiny cages line the dim walls, and thousands of thin white birds shudder in the darkness. They strain to turn around and spread unused wings in impossibly small cages, scratching haplessly at the thin wires under their feet.

Whether or not you care about a chicken's right to stretch its wings or scratch in the dirt, the science is clear: eggs from confined chickens are hotbeds for Salmonella. Of the eight studies conducted in the last five years, every one found that battery cage facilities possessed greater Salmonella rates than cage-free operations. According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, by switching to cage-free production, the egg industry may as much as halve Salmonella risk. With so many people becoming sick, animal agribusiness has a clear moral imperative to rip out the cages and move to cage-free systems, and soon. Indeed, that's just what the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Protection recommended at the conclusion of our two-and-a-half-year study: phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices, such as cages to confine laying hens, to reduce risks to public health and improve animal well-being.

National food safety organizations are joining the call for such reform. The Center for Food Safety and Center for Science in the Public Interest endorsed a successful 2008 California ballot measure that mandates egg producers to become cage-free by 2015. Michigan passed a similar phaseout through its legislature, and recently California Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill requiring all whole eggs sold in the state, regardless of where produced, be cage-free by 2015.

But legislation is not the only answer -- the other answer lies in you and me, the consumer and the restaurateur. Buy cage-free eggs. Ask your favorite chef or baker to make the change with you. My company, Bon Appétit Management Company, switched our whole eggs to cage-free in 2006. Since then, dozens more companies have all started making the move to cage-free eggs. It is incumbent upon us to drive the demand for healthy and sustainable food. If put to good use, our collective purchasing power could upend our system of animal agriculture completely.

You get to vote with your fork three times a day. You either vote for filth and disease, or for clean animals and good health. Together, we could opt for a system that supports animal welfare and safer food. Now that you're just as shocked as I am, it's time to take a stand.

Fedele Bauccio is the CEO of Bon Appétit Management Company