Op-Ed, 565 words

Egg Recall Reveals our Broken Food System

Patty Lovera

This mind-boggling egg recall, involving half a billion eggs from Iowa, is no fluke. It’s just the latest example of how the consolidation of our nation’s food production puts consumers at risk. The recall involves 30 different brands but only two factory farms–Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. Massive egg facilities on this scale are prone to frequent disease outbreaks.

According to the egg industry, 95 percent of all eggs come from facilities with 75,000 birds or more. Five states produce half of the nation’s eggs–Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California. If something goes wrong in just one egg factory, it has a negative impact on the entire country.

Journalists covering the egg recall are very focused on Austin “Jack” DeCoster, the man who owns Wright County Egg as well as Quality Egg, the company that sells feed and baby chicks to both companies involved in the recall. Clearly, DeCoster–infamous in Maine, Ohio, and Iowa for repeated labor and immigration violations, sexual harassment complaints and environmental offenses–is a scoundrel. But Americans also need to look at the system as a whole, because it really is broken.

DeCoster is just the poster child for the negative side effects that have resulted from the unchecked consolidation and massive production responsible for so much of our food.

When there’s consolidation at every step of the supply chain as there is in this current recall, it puts all the power to make decisions about how our food is raised in the hands of people like Jack DeCoster instead of independent farmers or consumers. We may see a lot of brand names at the store but we don’t really have a choice when many of the brands are produced by the same operations.

The fact that this recall began one month after long-awaited regulation by the Food and Drug Administration for salmonella prevention in large egg facilities kicked in proves that there’s still a lot of work to be done in protecting the public from food-borne illnesses. While we need the FDA to provide adequate inspections and enforcement, it’s even more important to recognize that the best way to prevent outbreaks of this magnitude is to encourage smaller and regionally dispersed production.

Fortunately, the Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice held its fourth in a series of historical workshops on corporate concentration and lack of competition in agriculture in Fort Collins Colorado on Friday, Aug. 27.

My organization, Food & Water Watch, was in Fort Collins as part of a coalition of groups defending the rights of independent ranchers and farmers, consumers, and farmworkers urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the unchecked consolidation and anti-competitive practices that have led our food producers to “get big or get out.”

These hearings are providing a long overdue opportunity for producers of all sizes to voice their concerns about the structure of our food system, and the impacts increasing consolidation has had on their livelihoods and the food we eat. In each of these hearings, whether the focus was the seeds needed to grow crops, dairy, poultry, pork, or beef, the bottom line has been the same: The rules are rigged, the playing field isn’t level, and we need a referee.

If the government has listened, it can’t claim it doesn’t know there’s a problem in these markets. Now the question is: What do they plan to do about it?

Patty Lovera is the assistant director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch www.foodandwaterwatch.org