The price of unregulated mega-farming will be more public health crises to come
If my experience is any guide, the people who are least surprised to hear of the appalling conditions that led to the egg recall that began on August 13 were my fellow small and mid-sized farmers. Many of us have watched with alarm the changes in the poultry industry over the past several decades and warned of its likely consequences.
I have been a farmer for more than two decades and a poultry farmer for the majority of that time. Since founding the National Black Farmers Association in 1995, I have spoken out many times about how the rise of industrial mega-farms has increased the risk of widespread food problems.
In May, I submitted public comment to a joint Department of Justice-USDA workshop on agricultural regulation held in Huntsville, Alabama. The event, part of an ongoing investigation focused on Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement Issues in Our 21st Century Economy, was chaired by Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In my testimony I spoke of the problems mega-farms have created and urge regulators to support small producers. Unfortunately, prior to the current recall, momentum for reform was not strong enough.
In the wake of the public health crisis, people are waking up to a troubling reality. Today, a few hundred mega-farms produce the majority of our country's eggs. The intensive industrial operations on these farms represent a fundamental change in the industry from the time when chickens grew cage-free in the chicken houses of small and mid-sized operations. This change is one that presents a significant threat to public health.
The reason is simple: A small farmer can look at an individual chicken and see whether that bird is healthy or sick. If you are in the chicken house every day, you can tell whether a chicken is behaving normally or constantly sitting--a sign of trouble. Small farmers have the ability to keep their farms clean, to promptly take out dead animals, and to make sure that there is enough room for the others. Small farmers are better able to control the sources of disease, such as rodents and decaying livestock. And we as consumers and a society should support the nation's small and mid-size farms for this and many other reasons.
At the National Black Farmers Association, we do not support the raising of chickens in cages. We support keeping birds in chicken houses and giving them enough room to grow. We believe that if you allow chickens to move in and out of their nests to lay their eggs, it produces a superior product. If you create the space to separate chickens, manure, and eggs--rather than concentrating these in an industrial-style facility--it produces food that is safer and healthier to eat.
In the facility where I worked, we had 15,000 chickens, which laid roughly 7,000 eggs a day. That might sound like a lot, but it pales in comparison with industrial operations which house an astonishing number of birds and produce an astonishing number of eggs per day. Remember, more than half a billion eggs were recalled and they were all from a few producers.
The bigger these huge corporate facilities get, the more you run into problems with cleanliness. As experts have pointed out, a few decades ago salmonella in eggs was not a widespread problem. It was when the mega-producers began to dominate - a situation I experienced firsthand - when this issue emerged.
While smaller farms are not immune from these challenges, it was only with the rise of massive industrial operations that our country created a system in which salmonella contamination could affect thousands of people nationwide.
Industry spokespeople want you to focus on the fact the recall to date has affected only a portion of all U.S. eggs. But that glosses over the reality of the situation. This current egg recall is the largest in American history. It affects not only whole eggs being sold in the supermarket but also eggs used in products sold nationwide. While the industry's savvy public relations efforts were keeping some criticism at bay before this recall, they cannot hide the enormity of this problem.
The solution is rethinking the way the food we eat is produced.
That starts with tighter oversight. Other countries that have very strict salmonella programs have done a much better job than we have at eliminating contamination not only from eggs, but also from chickens available at the market.
Doing that requires more inspections. When I was active in poultry, I took pride in that work and welcomed people to come walk through the chicken house. Industrial operations should be held to the same high standards of cleanliness and transparency.
If there is one advantage of consolidation, it is that it makes the job of inspectors easier. Since there are only a few hundred facilities producing the bulk of our eggs, making regular visits to each of them should not be too difficult.
It is promising to hear the news report from Sunday that the Obama Administration may soon announce that --starting in September and building through the end of the year--the FDA will visit and inspect 600 large egg farms responsible for the majority of egg production across the nation. The announcement that Congress will holding hearings on this issue in a few weeks is also welcome.
We must also address labeling. Currently, hundreds of companies purchase eggs from the mega-farms, then re-label the eggs as their own. In this manner, the industry is able to hide from consumers the true nature of egg production in America.
As a step toward some of these changes, the Senate is currently considering legislation called the FDA Modernization Act, a version of which has already passed the House. It would strengthen government oversight and increase penalties for companies that sell contaminated products.
The FDA Modernization Act would be a good start, but more must be done. Large agribusiness has been consistently fighting against regulation for the last 20 years. We are now paying the price. Our food is never going to be without imperfections. But industry opposition to reform has meant that a lot of people have been sickened for no good reason. All while this unchecked industry has continued to squeeze small and mid-size farms.
These are facts that America's small and mid-size farmers find hard to tolerate. And that is why we are speaking out.
John W. Boyd, Jr. is founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. An active farmer in southern Virginia, Boyd was a poultry farmer for 14 years.