By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, New York Times
The latest salmonella outbreak, underscoring the failures of industrial farming, reminds me of the small chicken flock that I tended while growing up on a family farm.
Our chickens wandered freely, and one dawn we were awakened by frantic squawking. We looked out the window to see a fox rushing off with a hen in its mouth.
My father grabbed his .308 rifle and blasted out the window twice in the general direction of the fox. Frightened, it dropped the hen. Yet the hen, astonishingly, was still alive. She picked herself up, spun around dizzily a couple of times, and staggered back to the barn.
A month later, my aunt visited our farm with her Irish setter, Toby, who was always eager to please but a bit dimwitted. We chatted and forgot about Toby — until he bounded up proudly to show a chicken he had retrieved for us.
It was the very same hen that had survived the fox. We shouted, and Toby sadly dropped the bird. She ruffled her feathers, glared at the dog, and then stalked off while clucking indignantly.
Perhaps that hen might have been ready to choose a cage over the perils of canines on the range, and, obviously, my family’s model of chicken-farming was horrendously inefficient and no model for the future. But the other extreme of jamming chickens into small cages is a nightmare for the animals — and the salmonella outbreak underscores that it can be a health hazard to humans as well.
Inspections of Iowa poultry farms linked to the salmonella outbreak have prompted headlines about infestations with maggots and rodents. But the larger truth is: industrial agriculture is itself unhealthy.
Repeated studies have found that cramming hens into small cages results in more eggs with salmonella than in cage-free operations. As a trade journal, World Poultry, acknowledged in May: “salmonella thrives in cage housing.”
Industrial operations — essentially factories of meat and eggs — excel at manufacturing cheap food for the supermarket. But there is evidence that this model is economically viable only because it passes on health costs to the public — in the form of occasional salmonella, antibiotic-resistant diseases, polluted waters, food poisoning and possibly certain cancers. That’s why the president’s cancer panel this year recommended that consumers turn to organic food if possible — a stunning condemnation of our food system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in 2005 suggesting that in 2000 there were about 182,000 cases of egg-caused salmonella in the United States, including 70 deaths. That means that even without an outbreak in the news, eggs with salmonella kill more than one American a week.
“We keep finding excuses to keep this rickety industrial system together when the threat is very clear,” said Robert P. Martin, the executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. “It’s really a matter of when, not if, these serious outbreaks occur.”
About 95 percent of American egg-laying hens are still raised in small battery cages, which are bacterial breeding grounds and notoriously difficult to disinfect. Hens are crammed together, each getting less space than a letter-size sheet of paper. The tips of their beaks are often sheared off so they won’t peck each other to death.
They are sometimes fed bits of “spent hen meal” — ground up chickens. That’s right. We encourage them to be cannibals.
Industrial farms also routinely feed animals low doses of antimicrobials because growers think these help animals gain weight. One study found that 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States are used in this way — even though this can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
“Food safety has received very little attention since Upton Sinclair,” notes Ellen Silbergeld, an expert on environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is deeply concerned about antibiotic overuse. “The massive economic reorganization of agriculture has proceeded with little recognition of its potential impacts on these aspects of food. Cheapness is all.”
But as Professor Silbergeld notes, unsafe foods are cheap only in a shortsighted way. The Pew commission found that industrial production produces hogs that at first sight are cheaper by six cents per pound. Add in pollution and health costs and that industrial pork becomes more expensive by 12 cents per pound.
Largely for humanitarian reasons, Europe already is moving toward a ban on battery cages. In 2008, California approved a similar ban, and other states are expected to follow.
So let’s hope this salmonella outbreak is a wake-up call. Commercial farming can’t return to a time when chickens wandered unfenced and were prey to foxes (and Irish setters). But we can overhaul our agriculture system so that it is both safer and more humane — starting with a move toward cage-free eggs.