When the Egg Thing Broke

The risk of salmonella poisoning at poultry operations with atrocious practices led to a massive egg recall totaling over 500 million eggs and reaching more than 22 states.  It is driving consumers to new sources such as farmers markets and co-ops.  But even co-op natural food stores and their suppliers can be caught unawares in a centralized, out-of-control food system. If product recall and communication plans are not already in place, retailers are sure to need such procedures on another occasion in the future.

The current egg recall illustrates not just awful conditions in the poultry industry but also how pervasive the centralized food system is. According to the industry group United Egg Producers, 95% of the laying hens in the U.S. live in flocks of at least 75,000 birds (cited by Cornucopia Institute:  http://www.cornucopia.org).

It is true that many food co-ops have been able to loudly and proudly say that their organic eggs have not been part of the recall.  But co-ops also stock non-organic eggs, and often the business relationships with local suppliers extend back for many years.  The family-owned operation of yesterday, or even of today, may today be part of a bigger, centralized egg supply system. 

At least three leading food co-ops in the Twin Cities (and perhaps others) were caught by surprise and had to issue a recall notice for some of their conventional eggs.  A common long-time egg supplier had made changes in its methods that their food co-op customers had not noticed.  Each of these co-ops has since the recall discontinued their relationship with the egg supplier and issued explanations and apologies in the store and/or on the co-op’s website: 

at Mississippi Market Co-op:  http://www.msmarket.coop/newsitem.php?id=488

at Seward Co-op:  http://www.seward.coop/product-recalls

at Wedge Co-op:  http://www.wedge.coop/food-news/current-recalls

One apparent lesson here is the need for continuing diligence and supplier review by the retailer.

Over at Fair Food Fight http://fairfoodfight.com, Barth Anderson points out that the FDA knew that one of the two main Iowa-based culprits in this poultry disaster (Hillandale Eggs, along with Wright County Egg) was connected to a late May salmonella outbreak in Bemidji, Minnesota, yet apparently FDA officials did not follow up.

DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg, has long been involved in other factory farm operations including massive hog confinement facilities, and he has a sordid history of abuse of animals, of workers, of water and air quality, and of public regulation.  Numerous fines has been levied and paid for some of these violations, yet the operations continue, if necessary after relocating. 

Tom Philpot at Grist has been providing good columns covering this story (along with great examples of local food revival):  see http://www.grist.org for his “Feeding the City” series as well as more on the egg recall.  His “Feeding the City” is full of great stories, at least one of which is likely to provide inspiration for additional efforts by your co-op and others in your city.

Related news included the announcement that the folks behind the Animal Welfare Approved label (www.animalwelfareapproved.org) have offered their consulting services without charge to any farmer wanting to start a pasture-based egg operation.

Also, in late the September the Cornucopia Insitute (linked above) issued its "Organic Egg Report and Scorecard," which examines the practices distinguishing organic and conventional operations, and also critiques numerous organic brands.  Their web-based rating tool evaluates nearly 70 different producers.

Each time one of these industrial system food recalls or other disaster hits the news, co-ops should be ready to accent messages about how and why they are a cleaner and more transparent source of food.           

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