Which Eggs Are Best? Organic, Free Range, Or Conventional?
Glance down at that fresh egg in the carton, and what do you see? A versatile food and a near-perfect capsule of energy and protein? Or a stealthy delivery system for Salmonella bacteria?
If you chose the latter, it's probably because you remember the August 2010 Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak, which prompted the recall of more than 500 million eggs after nearly 2,000 people became sick with fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.
In the aftermath of the outbreak, disturbing reports emerged about the two Iowa companies that produced the tainted eggs—Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both of which were shut down by the FDA until they could remedy the problems. The government pinned the blame on Salmonella contamination throughout the henhouses, in both the chicken feed and droppings. But FDA inspectors also found mice, flies, and wild birds indoors, and hens that had escaped from their cages and were wandering through immense piles of manure. None of this did anything to improve the image of big commercial egg farms, which had already been criticized for squeezing hens into tiny, restrictive cages.
In the months after the Great Egg Scare, producers of organic, cage-free, and free-range eggs struggled to keep up with a sudden surge in consumer demand. But while there is much to recommend those eggs—including a ban on toxic pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the hens' feed—an ironclad guarantee that they are Salmonella free is not one of the advantages. According to public health officials, the main thing that keeps eggs germ free is how an individual farmer—whether conventional or organic—manages a hen's eggs at every stage of the process from laying to washing, packing, and transport.
Prevention visited three farms—one conventional, one large-scale organic, and one small, local organic—for a firsthand glimpse of the journey of an egg from the hen to your plate. Prepare to be surprised.
The 100-acre conventional farm owned by Elmer Martin lies in the lush, rolling Pennsylvania Dutch countryside of Lancaster County. Before mounting the stairs to the henhouse door, visitors must don disposable coveralls—zipped up, full-body protective suits of a thin polyester, finished with plastic booties—which makes this tour feel a little like an adventure into a Hot Zone virus lab. The protection is not for the visitors, though; it's for the birds. Outsiders could easily introduce dangerous foreign bacteria and contaminants on their clothes and shoes.
Martin's henhouse is a long, narrow, windowless, industrial-looking building set off on a patch of bright green grass. We walk through the door and into a large, open, dim space that stretches 450 feet (the length of 1 1/2 football fields) and houses 87,000 birds—a little less than a typical henhouse on a factory farm. Wooden walkways stretch into the dusty distance between rows of cages, which are stacked four high. Hens are housed, in groups of seven, in cages that measure 20 by 24 inches—yielding each bird a space smaller than the size of an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper. The air is acrid and filled with the cluckings and shufflings of thousands of birds. They screech when we approach, but there's not enough room for them even to flap their wings.
The hens spend their productive years in these cages, pecking at the feed that shuttles past in an automatic trough and laying their eggs—about five per week—which roll down the sloped floor of the cage to another trough that carries them into the next room for cooling and storing. Most of the hens never even get to ogle a rooster, because they lay eggs whether or not a male is in the vicinity. When they are too old to produce "good" eggs, at around 24 months of age, they are shipped out to be slaughtered for various cooked-chicken products such as canned chicken meat.
As unsettling as the scene may be to a newcomer, Martin's farm is at the forefront of egg safety because it participates in the Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program (PEQAP), which has made strides against Salmonella by controlling risk factors, according to Paul H. Patterson, PhD, professor of poultry science at Pennsylvania State University, one of PEQAP's founders. The Pennsylvania program has been so effective that its methods served as the basis of a mandatory new set of FDA guidelines, called the Egg Safety Rule, which began being phased in across the country last summer—though not in time to prevent the Iowa outbreaks.
As part of PEQAP, Martin buys only chicks that have been certified Salmonella free, and he tests them again before bringing them into the henhouse. For added assurance, he regularly monitors the barn for any trace of the bacteria by dragging swabs through manure pits under the cages and then sending samples to state labs to test for any trace of the germs. And he cleans out the manure at least once a month—versus as seldom as once every 2 years at some conventional facilities. Equally important, Martin takes multiple measures to keep out rats, mice, flies, and wild birds, which can spread Salmonella bacteria around the henhouse.
The Pennsylvania system has proven that eggs from conventional caged hens can be made very low risk. In 1992, when the program began, 26% of the manure samples that inspectors took from participating Pennsylvania henhouses tested positive for Salmonella. Now it's down to 1%. "We believe the Egg Safety Rule, once fully implemented nationally in 5 to 10 years, can help prevent roughly 79,000 illnesses annually," says Don Kraemer, acting deputy director for operations at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. That would represent a reduction of more than 50% from the current FDA estimate of 142,000 egg-borne Salmonella cases a year.
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