By Heather Moore
Congressional leaders have launched an investigation of the two Iowa egg farms that were recently implicated in the nationwide salmonella outbreak. As this case shows, America’s food safety system clearly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But perhaps now that more than 1,300 people have fallen ill from eating tainted eggs (and experts estimate that at least 38 other people get sick for each reported case of salmonellosis), people will realize that we need to change more than our food safety regulations. We need to change the way we eat. We can start by scratching eggs off our shopping lists. There’s cruelty in every carton.
Among other things, Congress plans to review documents pertaining to the health, safety, environmental and/or animal welfare allegations against or violations committed by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms—the Iowa farms implicated in this case—and/or their suppliers. I can save them some trouble there. Jack DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg and Quality Egg of New England, the company that supplies chickens and chicken feed to both Wright County and Hillandale, has been cited for numerous offenses throughout the years, including cruelty to animals.
Just this past June, DeCoster, who owns several agribusinesses in the Midwest and Northeast, pleaded guilty to 10 civil counts of cruelty to animals and paid more than $130,000 in fines and restitution following Mercy for Animals’ undercover investigation of Quality Egg. Investigators with the animal protection group documented that hens were crammed into filthy cages without sufficient food and water, that sick and injured birds were left to languish without veterinary care and that live birds were tossed into the trash.
Such cruelty, while inexcusable, is the norm on egg farms. Ninety-nine percent of egg-laying hens are confined to filthy sheds containing row upon row of tiny, multitiered wire mesh “battery” cages. Four to six birds are crammed into every file drawer–sized cage. Each bird lives on an area smaller than a standard sheet of paper. The birds often suffer crippling leg injuries from standing on wire 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They never breathe fresh air, feel the sun on their backs, build nests or engage in any other natural behavior.
Feces from birds in the top cages constantly falls on the birds below and into the huge manure pits that line the sheds, providing ideal conditions for disease. Many birds die, and the survivors must live with their rotting cagemates.
When birds are forced to live in such squalid conditions, the likelihood that harmful salmonella bacteria, which live in the intestines and feces of animals, will spread from bird to bird—and from birds to people—increases dramatically.
People who don’t want to get sick from salmonella poisoning—and those who don’t want any part of cruel egg-production practices—should stop eating eggs and egg products. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Margaret Hamburg has already cautioned people about eating eggs, especially ones with runny yolks. She also wants Congress to allow the FDA to take a more “preventive approach” to food-borne disease outbreaks.
What better way to prevent salmonella poisoning and reduce animal suffering than to stop eating eggs altogether? Instead of buying eggs, you could opt for egg replacer (a cholesterol-free powdered mix that can be used in baked goods), scrambled and seasoned tofu and other tasty vegan foods. Vegan cookbooks and websites are full of egg-free recipes and product suggestions.
Heather Moore is a research specialist for the PETA Foundation.