Food Safety and Animal Cruelty

In the wake of the recent recall  of more than half a billion eggs in 18 states as a result of a salmonella outbreak, the Food Safety Modernization Act, H.B. 2751, is now law. 

The bill was resurrected in late 2010 and amended in a bipartisan effort led by  Sens. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa), and Mike Enzi, (R-WY), chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  H.B. 2751 was substituted then for the manager’s version of S.B. 510 found here. Repl. Betty Sutton (D-OH) was the sponsor of H.B. 2751. Read the highlights of the new law here.  

What does this have to do with stopping farm animal cruelty? Well, nothing. That’s the problem. There was rare bipartisan agreement on first S.B. 510 and finally, H.B. 2751, to enable FDA to do more inspections, issue recalls to try to assure food safety and put better controls and methods of tracking food-borne illnesses.

But the shocking cruelty endured by hens and other farm animals trapped in agri-business facilities is the 900 pound gorilla in the room that no one in Congress is discussing.  

Yet, a number of scientifically sound studies collected here have established a cause of salmonella is the intensive confinement of egg laying hens in battery cages where they can barely move let alone flap their wings. More than 95% of U.S. eggs are produced in facilities where tens of thousands, even millions, of egg laying hens are kept this way. 

As the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production warned in 2008, it is clear that the crowded conditions farm animals are forced to live in day after day are a cause of serious food-borne illnesses. Whether it is use of a battery cage that gives each hen less space than a piece of 8½" x 11" copy paper, a gestation crate where pregnant pigs can barely move or tie stalls that confine veal calves, these so-called farming practices are making people ill. Deathly ill in some cases.  

The current egg fiasco is a case in point.

The recall was prompted by a salmonella outbreak traced to two egg production facilities or factory farms in Iowa:  Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.  Though the egg industry has dismissed the recall as involving less than 3% of eggs produced, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there are nearly 1,500 documented cases of illness attributable to the salmonella outbreak with as many as 30 unreported victims for every known case. Both the FDA and the Dept. of Justice are investigating the cause.

The two companies share suppliers. Austin "Jack" DeCoster owns Wright County Egg and one of its suppliers, Quality Egg. Quality Egg also supplies Hillandale Farms.

DeCoster Egg Farms’ health and safety violations were so numerous and so egregious that after the company paid $2 million in fines in 1997, then Labor Secretary Robert Reich observed conditions at the facility were "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop". Alexis Herman, who succeeded Reich as Labor Secretary denounced DeCoster Farms as "simply atrocious".

Imagine what it has been like for the animals in DeCoster’s facilities.  

And, despite the high level denunciations, nothing changed. In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a "habitual violator" of environmental regulations related to waste runoff into waterways. This means the company was prohibited from building new factory farms and must pay increased penalties for future violations.

As a result of an undercover investigation demonstrating animal cruelty, this past summer in June, 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed to pay $25,000 in penalties and $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture.

What regulation has meant

Just this week, reported two former employees described that USDA inspectors worked alongside the Wright Egg facility where 7.7 million egg laying hens were kept in filthy conditions. The employees said the USDA inspectors ignored their complaints about live and dead chickens, mice and even a cat on the conveyor belt that carries eggs to a packaging area, piles of waste, and filth. And one USDA inspector agreed! Caleb Weaver described that USDA’s only task is to grade the eggs – A, AA, and so on. Weaver said the unsanitary conditions are relevant to USDA only if it affects the grading.  Never mind the animal cruelty.

Under the Egg Products Inspection Act, 21 U.S.C. 1031, et seq., the responsibility for federal oversight in this instance is divided between USDA and FDA. But neither Wright County Egg nor Hillandale had ever been inspected by FDA. Not until the recall this past month.  

In 2007 the Government Accountability Office designated federal oversight of food safety as "high risk":

"[T]he fragmented federal food safety system …[has] 15 agencies [that] collectively administer at least 30 laws related to food safety." The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is "responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products" and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is "responsible for virtually all other foods". In some instances these agencies share jurisdiction. The Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) within USDA has a role in disease prevention. Also, the "National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce conducts voluntary, fee-for-service inspections of seafood safety and quality; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the use of pesticides and maximum allowable residue levels on food commodities and animal feed; and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for coordinating agencies’ food security activities." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which is within DHHS has a role in food safety through its monitoring and investigations of outbreaks of food-borne diseases.

As the GAO report illustrates the food safety system is "further complicated by the subtle differences in food products that dictate which agency regulates a product as well as the frequency with which inspections occur. For example, how a packaged ham-and-cheese sandwich is regulated depends on how the sandwich is presented. USDA inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with one slice of bread), but FDA inspects manufacturers of packaged closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with two slices of bread). Although there are no differences in the risks posed by these products, USDA inspects wholesale manufacturers of open-face sandwiches sold in interstate commerce daily, while FDA inspects closed-face sandwiches an average of once every 5 years. . Food products under FDA’s jurisdiction may be marketed without prior approval while under USDA’s jurisdiction they must generally be inspected and approved as meeting federal standards before being sold to the public. USDA inspectors examine each slaughtered carcass and visit each facility at least once during each operating day. For foods under FDA’s jurisdiction, however, federal law does not mandate the frequency of inspections. …Food recalls are voluntary. However, USDA and FDA do not know how promptly and completely companies are carrying out recalls, do not promptly verify that recalls have reached all segments of the distribution chain, and use procedures to alert consumers to a recall that may not be effective."

In July, 2010 the FDA issued final new regulations for egg producers, in part, to try to reduce salmonella cases. But none of the regulations which include improved sanitation, refrigeration and the like, address the risk created by intensive confinement of egg laying hens in battery cages. 

The FDA has called for the tools under H.B. 2751 to enforce the new regulations. Sen. Harkin said:

"For far too long, the headlines have told the story of why this measure is so urgently needed: foodborne illness outbreaks, product recalls and Americans sickened over the food they eat. This 100-year-old plus food safety structure needed to be modernized".

"I am pleased that after a great deal of time and effort from members on both sides of the aisle, we have a strong, bipartisan proposal that will overhaul our current food safety system – a system that right now fails far too many American consumers."


The bill is an exhortation to industry to stop the scary outbreaks. It arms the FDA with more oversight and the ability to issue mandatory recalls. But it may amount to little more than hand wringing without decisive action to end the intensive confinement of farm animals.

The federal government would do well to take a page from the trend in the states. In the past two years, Michigan and Maine joined Colorado and  Arizona in banning confinement in gestation crates for pregnant sows and tie stalls or confined enclosures for veal calves.  California with its successful Prop 2 will ban battery cages for egg laying hens as well. Oregon and Florida ban gestation crates for pregnant sows. A Prop 2 like measure  as well as a farm animal cruelty prevent bill have been re-filed in 2011 in New York’s Assembly.

For more on the cruelty of these practices, go here.  


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