Is your food making you sick?

September 14, 2010

Nicole Colson looks at the recent egg recall--and explains why the drive for profit is the reason that our food system is unsafe.

LAST MONTH, the largest recall of eggs in history--550 million eggs--was intensified after salmonella contamination that sickened some 1,300 people between May and the end of August. It was the largest outbreak of the illness in the U.S. since records were first kept more than 30 years ago--and, since most cases go unreported, the real number of those made ill is likely much, much higher.

The tainted eggs were packaged under at least a dozen different brand names, but were produced at Wright County Egg (also known, ironically enough, as "Quality Egg"), a massive egg-producing facility located in Iowa and owned by Austin "Jack" DeCoster--as well as Hillandale Farms, another Iowa egg producer, which also has business ties to Wright County Egg and DeCoster.

Perhaps more sickening than the actual illnesses that affected thousands of consumers are the reported conditions at the egg "factories" that caused the outbreaks. Inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the wake of the recall found a disgusting array of unsanitary conditions at both Wright County and Hillandale--making them perfect breeding grounds for salmonella contamination.

Factory-farmed eggs collect on shelves below packed cages full of hens
Factory-farmed eggs collect on shelves below packed cages full of hens (Farm Sanctuary)

According to reports, at Wright County Egg, FDA inspectors found chicken manure in piles four to eight feet high. Access doors were forced open by the piles, allowing "open access to wildlife or domesticated animals."

Other violations listed in the FDA inspection reports include:

-- Live rodents and mice at both farms;

"Live flies too numerous to count" on egg belts, in the feed and on the eggs themselves at Wright County Egg;

Dead and live maggots "too numerous to count" on the manure pit floor in one location at Wright County Egg;

Structural damage to several facilities at both farms, including holes in siding, which allow access to wild animals;

Uncaged chickens walking through manure piles between various portions of the facilities at Wright County;

Employees not changing clothing properly when moving from one location to another, and not sanitizing equipment properly;

Wild birds flying in and out of two areas, and pigeons roosting in another, at Wright County Egg;

Liquid manure seeping through the foundation to the outside of laying houses in more than a dozen locations at Wright County Egg; and leaking in at least one location at Hillandale Farms;

Rusted holes in feed bins and birds flying over the feed bins at Wright County Egg.

Former employees of Wright County say that they had long warned about hazardous conditions, but were ignored by USDA officials who, incredibly, were on site several times a year, grading and inspecting eggs.

Robert and Deanna Arnold, who worked at Wright County on and off for years, told the Associated Press that they reported conditions including "leaking manure and dead chickens" to USDA employees, but nothing was done. "It didn't matter which USDA officer was working, if we reported something, they would just turn their heads," Deanna Arnold said. "They didn't care."

According to the Associated Press:

Deanna Arnold said she worked on the line sorting eggs and saw live and dead chickens on the conveyer system that carries eggs from the poultry house to the USDA-staffed packing area. She said she also saw mice, tools and even a live cat on the conveyer system in the plant.

Her husband said he saw manure leaking from buildings and piles of manure that stood 40 feet high.

They also said boxes that contained eggs that were cracked in shipping and rejected by stores were returned to the distribution center. Although by then they were weeks old, some eggs that were not cracked were repackaged and sent back out, Robert Arnold said.

"I complained that that was wrong because they were old eggs, and the USDA person said it was okay because they do it all the time," he said.

THAT SUCH conditions would exist at these particular farms was entirely predictable. Jack DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg, has a lengthy history of serious violations and lawsuits at his various production facilities, in Maine, Maryland and Iowa spanning back several decades.

In the 1970s, so many child workers were being hurt at DeCoster's operation in Maine that the state was forced to revamp its child labor laws--"prohibiting children under 16 from working in proximity to 'hazardous machinery or hazardous substances' because of accidents involving teenage workers at DeCoster's facilities," according to the Chicago Tribune.

In 1988, New York state banned DeCoster's eggs from the state after 11 people died from salmonella poisoning in a New York hospital that imported eggs from the Maryland egg-producing facility owned by DeCoster. (In federal court, the state of Maryland was barred from shutting down DeCoster's operation because he sold eggs across state lines. Yet neither the USDA nor the FDA took action against DeCoster in that case.)

Three years later, Maryland imposed a quarantine on DeCoster's eggs after finding hens with salmonella.

Today, DeCoster has at least 7.5 million chickens in Iowa and another 5.5 million in Maine. He also expanded into hog farming after coming to Iowa, and has some 27,000 hogs in and around Wright County. His Iowa operations have been accused of a slew of serious, repeated violations going back nearly to their opening.

According to the Dayton Daily News:

DeCoster's farms have had so many environmental problems the Iowa attorney general in 2000 labeled him a "habitual violator" of the state's laws [because of his hog operation]...

State records show manure from DeCoster's farms polluted Iowa's water at least 10 times between 1993 and 2000. A 1997 manure spill into a well that drains into Wright County's groundwater led to a $10,000 fine under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act--the first time the federal government fined a farm for breaking that law.

DeCoster was ordered in 2000 to pay $150,000 to the state for environmental violations, and he was prohibited from putting up more animal farms until 2005.

DeCoster's operations are also notorious for their poor treatment of their workers as well--especially Latino immigrants.

In 1996, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined DeCoster $3.6 million for violations in the workplace and at workers' housing. According to a New York Times report at the time, "Federal investigators said they found workers, many of whom are immigrants from Latin America, handling manure and dead chickens with their bare hands, and living amid rats and cockroaches in the company's trailer park."

Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich, described conditions at Maine's DeCoster Egg Farms as "among the worst we found around the country." It was, Reich said, "an agricultural sweatshop,'' where "the workers are treated like animals."

In 1999, DeCoster reportedly paid $5 million to settle a class-action suit involving unpaid overtime for 3,000 workers. Some workers were paid straight time for working 80 hours per week.

In 2002, without admitting wrongdoing, DeCoster Farms agreed to pay $1.53 million to settle an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit brought on behalf of 11 female employees at Wright County facilities. Five said they had been raped by supervisors who threatened to have them fired or killed if they did not submit. Six said they were victims of repeated sexual harassment. Some of the women were undocumented and threatened with deportation if they reported the abuse.

That same year, DeCoster paid $3.2 million to settle a discrimination case brought by Mexican workers at his Maine operation, who alleged they were forced to endure harsher living and working conditions than white employees.

Jack DeCoster is, in other words, the British Petroleum of egg producers--with a rap sheet of safety and workers' rights violations a mile long. It wasn't a matter of if his eggs would make people sick again, but when.

BUT WHILE DeCoster and other manufacturers deserve the lion's share of blame for such an outbreak, it should be asked how such conditions can be allowed to flourish in an industry that directly affects public health on such a massive scale.

Currently, the FDA and the USDA split responsibility for inspecting egg-laying operations. The FDA oversees areas where hens lay eggs, while the USDA is in charge of the eggs as they are packaged.

Yet despite DeCoster's history of violations, the FDA had never inspected Wright County Egg facilities until July--when it finally imposed mandatory controls, including random egg testing (rules which likely limited the damage done by the outbreak). The same was true for Hillandale Farms. In fact, prior to July, the FDA didn't even have a system for visiting sites. Instead, it focused on farms primarily when they were linked to an outbreak.

This is one of the dirty secrets of the American food system. Government inspections are rare and often cursory--overlooking poor conditions and worker safety violations.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, recently noted:

The United States once had one of the safest food systems in the world, but now, 70 million Americans are sickened, 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die from food-borne illness every year. It is a sad fact: since 9/11, far more Americans have been killed, injured or hurt because of our lack of a coordinated food safety system than by terrorist acts that challenge our Homeland Security system...

Due in part to [the Bush] administration's cuts in funding and staff, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently inspects less than 25 percent of all food facilities in the U.S. More than 50 percent of all American food facilities have gone uninspected for five years or more. During President Bush's last term, regulatory actions against those companies selling contaminated food to Americans declined by over a half.

The result is tragically predictable. Large processing facilities, which now mix foods from across the country and the world, are not being inspected. Illnesses caused by contaminated foods, which could be prevented with proper government oversight, are instead causing the hospitalization of hundreds of thousands and the deaths of thousands of Americans. Again, the victims are, disproportionately, our children.

BUT WHILE lax government oversight is one side of the increasing number of food-borne illnesses, the other side is the very nature of food production under modern capitalism.

The growth of large-scale factory farming in the U.S. over the past several decades has meant a concentration of the production of food into ever-larger operations. The best-known are the massive "concentrated animal feeding operations" that sprawl across massive areas in the Midwest: giant chicken, hog and cattle farms where tens of thousands of animals are kept and slaughtered each day--and where mountains or ponds of manure routinely pollute the air and water of surrounding communities.

The same drive toward concentration is true of the egg industry. In 1987, 95 percent of laying hens existed on 2,500 farms. Today, 192 egg producers account for the same percentage, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.

The emphasis on large-scale production, concentrated in the hands of fewer owners, means that these facilities are focused on churning out mass quantities of "product," and their operators are willing to engage in practices that are inherently harmful to animals, the environment and humans--agricultural workers as well as food consumers.

As Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World's Food Supply, has written:

The process of shipping, processing and trucking food across distances demands a great deal of capital--you need to be rich to play the game. It is also a game that has economies of scale. This means the bigger a company is, and the more transport and logistics it does, the cheaper it is for that company to be in the business.

Likewise, the economic logic of expanding profits dictates cutting corners on food and worker safety--as has been true since the days of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Concentration of animals into crowded and unsanitary conditions, like those at operations run by DeCoster, is "necessary" from a business perspective. So is feeding animals whatever product will make them grow the fastest or churn out the most eggs, no matter the impact on the animals'--or consumers'--health.

Likewise, the emphasis is on agricultural workers harvesting, slaughtering or gathering as quickly as possible--safety and sanitary conditions be damned.

All this presents the perfect opportunity for an outbreak of salmonella or other food-borne illness. And when there is an outbreak, the fact that individual producers have such an enormous market share means that more people, across more states, are now likely to get sick, as in the case of the egg recall.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement to the Associated Press that the egg recall "exemplifies the critical need to make significant improvements" in the nation's food safety system, and that the Obama administration had made food safety a top priority.

But Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, has been a supporter of industrial farms throughout his career--and is particularly known for his close relationship with the agribusiness giant Monsanto and the explosion of concentrated animal feeding operations in Iowa during his time as governor.

And the relationship goes both ways--Jack DeCoster and his family have been extremely "generous" when it comes to political contributions. According to the Iowa Independent, DeCoster and his family have made more than $500,000 in personal and corporate contributions since 1999, all of it to Democrats, and much of it to Iowa Democrats in particular.

Thus, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the same politician whose office once called DeCoster the state's first "habitual violator" of environmental laws, received a $10,000 donation for his reelection campaign from Jack DeCoster's son Peter in 2005.

So it's no wonder that proposed congressional legislation which is supposed to tighten food safety and strengthen government oversight--the Food Safety Modernization Act and the Food Safety Enhancement Act--is essentially designed to let large agricultural producers like DeCoster off the hook. As Kimbrell notes:

[M]embers of Congress were so committed to the interests of big industrial meat producers that they...prohibited the FDA from "impeding, minimizing or affecting" USDA authority on meat, poultry and eggs. As a result, these bills contain the stupefying provision that no attempt by the FDA to combat E. coli and Salmonella will be allowed. These bacteria are the most common causes of deadly food-borne illness and are found in products contaminated with animal feces.

As long as foxes like DeCoster can manipulate how the hen house is guarded, our health will remain at risk.

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