Every year, tens of thousands of Americans suffer as a result of an egg-borne Salmonella epidemic that has become so commonplace it receives little attention unless the levels of infection become high enough to trigger a national recall. That’s exactly what happened this summer when public health officials discovered a quadrupling of weekly Salmonella cases --prompting the investigation that led to the vast national egg recall. What most consumers don’t know is that the Food and Drug Administration estimates 142,000 Americans get Salmonella food poisoning from eggs every year, recall or no recall.
Most Salmonella victims suffer only acute bouts of gastroenteritis, which are serious enough. But Salmonella infection can have life-long consequences, such as chronic arthritis. Children, who are at especially high risk for infection, can experience persistent irritable bowel syndrome. And worst, Salmonella is the leading cause of foodborne illness-related death.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture calculations, 1 in 20,000 eggs are likely contaminated with Salmonella. So that’s millions of Salmonella-tainted eggs distributed annually. And that’s in a good year—before this latest outbreak ever happened.
The mistreatment of hens is one reason millions of Salmonella-infected eggs reach American supermarkets in such numbers. Cramming hundreds of thousands of birds under a single roof in tiny cages creates an immense volume of contaminated airborne fecal dust that can rapidly spread Salmonella infection between birds. Other factors blamed for increasing Salmonella risk in cage operations include the inability to effectively disinfect the cage equipment between flocks, the swarms of rodent and insect vectors that breed in the massive manure pits beneath the cages, and the immune-crippling stress of extreme confinement on the hens themselves.
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that the risk to consumers could be cut in half if the industry moved to cage-free systems. Every one of the last 10 scientific studies comparing conventional cage and cage-free egg operations found higher Salmonella in operations that confine hens in cages, including a 2010 study that found 20 times greater odds of Salmonella infection in caged flocks.
This is an epidemic with no end in sight—
and one that calls for the egg industry to stop confining hens in cages.
Michigan and California have already passed laws to phase out cages. California also just passed a law requiring that all whole eggs sold statewide be cage-free by 2015. In Ohio this year, agriculture leaders agreed to support a moratorium on the construction of new battery cage egg facilities.
Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the factory farms implicated in the latest recall, are not just bad eggs. Food safety issues inherent to caging hens put all egg consumers at risk. It’s time for the egg industry to phase out these hazardous and merciless cages.
Dr. Michael Greger is director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture in the farm animal welfare division for the Humane Society of the United States.
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