Eggs in Iowa's Mass Society
by Paul Deaton
the salmonella outbreak happened, local organizations and the corporate
media all jumped on board with statements, solutions and calls to
action. The thing is that if we follow the news cycle, the issue will be
out of view in a week or so, with most people finding a way to believe
“my eggs are safe” and nothing changed in the industrial food supply.”
Between the ease of consuming industrial food and the tedium and hard work of subsistence agriculture lies a middle ground where most of us land regarding the food we eat. In the United States, we lean towards the industrial food side of things and the recent salmonella outbreak in eggs highlighted this for us.
The Des Moines Register reported that 550 million eggs were recalled by two Iowa farms owned by Jack DeCoster, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa. By any reckoning, the recall of 550 million eggs is a lot and represents a substantial financial impact on a company's operations. The sickening of more than 1,470 people from salmonella in eggs has a broad psychological impact on consumers of industrial food products as well.
The FDA is tracing the source of the contamination and according to the Register, it appears to be bone meal that was improperly prepared as a feed ingredient for young chickens. Additional testing is being done by the FDA to confirm the exact source of the contamination. The feed mill that produced the apparently contaminated feed is owned and used exclusively by the DeCoster farms, and because of this exclusive use it is exempt from federal inspections.
Thursday night, on The Fallon Forum, Ed and Lynn Fallon presented some of the concerns with DeCoster operations and the habitual failure of the company to comply with food industry, EEOC and immigration regulations. Ed said, more than once, DeCoster should be in jail.
Francis Thicke, candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and an organic dairy farmer, appeared on the Fallon Forum and demonstrated his grasp of the issues regarding the industrial food supply and the potential consequences to food safety when large scale operations like those of DeCoster are not in compliance with the law. (We could use a fellow like Thicke as Secretary of Agriculture).
Food Democracy Now created a petition to ask your grocery store to stop carrying DeCoster eggs.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement issued a press release that said, “The industrial model of agriculture which crams large numbers of livestock and their waste together into confined buildings and concentrates control of our food supply into the hands of a few corporations not only causes serious air and water pollution but also threatens our food safety,” said Jim Yungclas, an Iowa CCI Board Member from Wright County, Iowa.
An editorial in the Thursday New York Times, also pointed to the problems in keeping the industrial food supply safe and recommended, “The Food and Drug Administration should urge egg producers to vaccinate their hens promptly. The Senate must pass long-stalled legislation that could strengthen the hand of regulators to prevent and control outbreaks of all food-related illnesses.”
After the salmonella outbreak happened, local organizations and the corporate media all jumped on board with statements, solutions and calls to action. The thing is that if we follow the news cycle, the issue will be out of view in a week or so, with most people finding a way to believe “my eggs are safe” and nothing changed in the industrial food supply. That is unfortunate, because the “outbreak-news attention-recede from view” cycle fails to address the issue of a sustainable food supply.
Some say the solution is in more people raising their own eggs, especially in cities like Des Moines where raising certain livestock in town is permitted. Tending urban chickens (or urban hens, since neighbors may not appreciate the crowing of roosters in town) is a return to an agrarian individualism that is out of sync with modern life and no sustainable solution in a mass society. A dozen hens can meet the needs of a family and a few neighbors, but is not scalable inside city limits. It is a “what's in it for me” solution, and antisocial in some respects.
For the foreseeable future large scale operations and the industrial food system they represent will be part of our food supply. In the DeCoster incident, as it is so often the case, slack enforcement of the law, and inadequate oversight led to a disruption in the safety of the food supply. If we disenfranchise DeCoster without addressing the regulatory problem, someone else will pop up to replace the role he is playing. The more we enable corporate entities to police themselves, as some politicians say it is appropriate to do, and as DeCoster did in his private feed mill, the more likely we are to experience outbreaks of salmonella.
The lesson to be learned is that regulatory oversight of farm operations is important. Leaders in our government, in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the USDA and the FDA particularly, need to find the budget and backbone to enforce the law. Where the law is inadequate, they should advocate for changes that will reduce the probability of future outbreaks. In the end, it comes down to the vigilance of citizens like you and me.
As we each find our place on the continuum between an industrial food supply and locally grown produce, some portion of our time must be spent on advocacy for proper enforc
ement of laws relating to agriculture. In Iowa, this goes against the grain, but we should be advocates of solutions rather than victims when it comes to the food we eat.
~Paul Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and weekend
editor of Blog for Iowa. E-mail Paul Deaton