In 1999, President Clinton announced the government was taking "new action on food safety to cut in half, over the next five years, the number of Salmonella cases attributed to eggs. And our goal is to eliminate these cases entirely by 2010...." Instead, this year we suffered the largest egg recall in U.S. history. The egg industry was able to forestall the Egg Safety Rule that went into effect this year for more than a decade and suffered another setback today with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act. This new law provides the Food and Drug Administration--the agency that oversees most egg production--with new tools to mandate recalls, impose civil and criminal penalties, and require testing at egg factories. The passage of this legislation is definitely a positive step for food safety, but more needs to be done.
Earlier this month the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover investigation of our nation's largest egg producer, revealing rampant animal abuse and food safety problems, such as hens covered in feces and live birds forced to live on top of mummified bird carcasses rotting in cages. They found the same squalid conditions in undercover investigations into America's second and third largest producers earlier this year--similar to what the FDA found at the Salmonella-contaminated egg factories in Iowa that were responsible for the recall of more than a half billion eggs months later. Even before the egg recall, the FDA estimates that 142,000 Americans are sickened by eggs tainted with Salmonella annually--that's an egg-borne epidemic every year. One of the reasons so many disease-ridden eggs are produced is the cruel way the egg industry treats their hens.
Most eggs produced in the U.S. come from hens confined in tiny cages where they can barely move an inch their entire lives. The extreme confinement of hens in cages enables factory farms to cram hundreds of thousands of birds under a single roof, that can lead to a huge volume of contaminated airborne fecal dust and swarms of rodents and flies that can breed in massive manure pits underlying the cages and spread Salmonella around. It's no wonder that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that this extreme confinement of hens in cages leads to increased Salmonella contamination. Caging hens is not only cruel; it's a public health menace for consumers.
The new FDA Egg Safety Rule forces the industry to improve their testing, record-keeping, and refrigeration during transport, but doesn't address the elephant in the henhouse: the cages themselves. The FDA expects the new regulations, once fully implemented, to drop the number of Americans being food poisoned by Salmonella-tainted eggs from the current 142,000 cases a year down to 63,000. That's significant progress, but that's still almost a thousand Americans a week expected to continue to be sickened by infected eggs. The FDA should revise the Egg Safety Rule to address this clear link between caging hens and Salmonella and to develop a plan to phase out cage confinement in this country. Because many common egg cooking methods--scrambling, over-easy, sunny-side up--are ineffective at eliminating the threat of salmonella, the industry has to clean up their act at the source and move away from these merciless and hazardous cages.