Sunny side up: why eggs are safer in Europe

By Guest Contributor
August 27, 2010

egg aisleThe following is a guest post by Bonnie Azab Powell, co-founder of the food-politics blog The Ethicurean who started the Bay Area’s first Community-Supported Agriculture program for meat, BAMCSA, in 2006. She now manages the CSA programs for Clark Summit and Soul Food farms. She eats two runny eggs nearly every day. The opinions expressed are her own.

Reading about the recall of 550 million possibly salmonella-tainted U.S. eggs, laid and packed in just a handful of massive Iowa factories made me think about the egg aisle of a Sainsbury’s supermarket I visited in England, near Brighton, two years ago.

I was so struck by the store signage, which read not only “Organic” and “Free Range” — familiar terms — but also “Barn” and “Caged,” that I took several pictures with my iPhone. My English host practically had to drag me away from reading all the explanatory text included on the cartons: barn eggs are “laid by hens free to nest, perch, and roam in spacious barns,” while “Woodland organic free-range” eggs are “from hens free to roam in a natural environment with trees.”

Not only are the cartons informatively labeled, each egg is stamped with a simple code that tells what kind of system produced it.

It sounded so … pleasant. I didn’t see how anyone with a heart could pass over these visions of happy nesting, perching, tree-scratching chickens – despite being more expensive — for the grim “from caged hens.” And yet as I watched, plenty of shoppers opted to save the pound or more per dozen.

In Europe, the philosophy is “Buyer Be Aware.” But in the U.S., it’s “Buyer Beware.” American food labels have loads of nutritional information, but little that you can trust to tell you how it was produced.

Looking out for the little chicks

In line with its more protective attitude toward consumers, Europe requires any genetically modified food ingredients to be identified as such. Egg operations over a certain size are required to vaccinate their flocks for salmonella unless they can demonstrate that they have strict preventive measures in place or that there hasn’t been an incidence of salmonella on the property in the previous year. As a result, salmonella infections in England have dropped a stunning 96 percent since 1997.

And the European Food Safety Authority has strongly discouraged the use of antimicrobials for controlling salmonella because of the risk of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria. Governments in Europe have much more power to enforce food safety testing and to shut down infected farms.

Whereas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has only recently acknowledged that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals — which promotes growth — might be causing antibiotic-resistant bugs.

Here in America we even don’t have mandatory recalls. We let the industry conduct its own testing for pathogens, and when it is nice enough to tell the FDA it’s found some, we let the company recall months-old tainted products on its own schedule. We also let a “habitual violator,” as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources called Wright County Egg owner Jack Decoster for his hog-waste handling, keep on making food for millions of Americans. The most punishment he’s received so far has been being fined for animal and worker abuse.

The FDA has new egg industry safety standards that go into effect in September that supposedly could have nipped this salmonella outbreak in the bud. But the standards will still rely on the DeCosters of the world to test their own henhouses. There is a new food-safety bill that the House passed in July 2009 that would give the FDA recall authority as well as make certain inspections mandatory, but the Senate is still sitting on it.

sainsburys_woodlandeggs_march2009

Beyond the labels

When I went back to the same Sainsbury’s six months later, the caged eggs were gone. The chain had kicked them out. The move may have had something to do with two TV exposés of the poultry industry by the U.K. food celebrities Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But it was still two years ahead of the European Union’s mandatory phase-out of battery cages by 2012.

That’s right. In two years, all European chickens are supposed to be free, free, free!

But the reality behind that pleasant-sounding egg labels turns out to be a little less rosy. “Enriched cages,” which offer nest boxes, litter, perches and only slightly more space per bird are still stacked several levels high and will still be allowed. And those “barn” eggs come from hens that “roam” in a seething mass of thousands on the dirt floor of a huge shed.

At least “free range” European hens have continuous access to open-air runs, which regulations say have to be “mainly covered by vegetation,” and are allotted a minimum of 4 square meters each. In America, there is no binding definition for the term, and many producers use it to describe operations that are more like the English “barn” kind.

The sad fact is that industrial farming is the norm in both Europe and America, and that whenever you have thousands of animals crowded together inside — whether barn egg layers in England or chickens at big organic operations in Northern California — you’re going to increase the risk of pathogens like salmonella.

As the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center website says, “Salmonella bacteria survive well in wet environments shielded from sunlight … under low oxygen tension, such as that found in manure slurry pits … [but they’re] destroyed by the drying effects of wind, by the bactericidal effect of UV irradiation from the sun.”

Experts can debate all they want about whether truly free-range or “pastured” small farms with their natural sun and wind disinfectants are safer than chicken über-sweatshops like DeCoster’s. Faced with a choice on a supermarket shelf of “caged” or a meaningful “free range” label, more Americans just might opt for the latter.

And if they don’t? Well, caveat emptor.

11 comments

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Free range chickens are way happier and happiness wards off disease

Posted by STORYBURNthere | Report as abusive

The FDA needs more recall authority. You know this “free market” obsession has gone on long enough when we start being poisoned.

Posted by WittgensteinIII | Report as abusive

Cook your food well, just like your mommy taught you to.
The government does not need to take on the role of mommy and daddy to the public. Far too many people today are looking for just that and they need to kicked out of the nest and told go grow up. Educate yourself because the government provided education will lead you into the dependency role. Now get out from behind that apron, stand up on your own hind legs, and learn to take care of yourself. Lest we all become like those caged or barn chickens.

Posted by OldQuote | Report as abusive

For all of you that are against government agencies that protect us from evil guys like the owners of the egg farm that produced this poison and unleashed it on consumers, have a nice breakfast.

Posted by jstaf | Report as abusive

[...] Rather than make the case ourselves, we think Bonnie Azab Powell did a good job in her recent article. Here’s a little [...]

and this is just eggs… Try working out where a steak comes from in the US, and what is in it???
I was just in Europe, and in Asda (owned by Walmart) meat actually had the farm address on it, so that consumers could check out the place online if they wanted

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

yeah i know i am the first on to say the government is corrupt….but certain things need to be done by government, corporations arent the solution….big business deciding everything isnt the solution.

Posted by barkinbob | Report as abusive

The market wants to be free ….free to screw you for all it can at any cost or risk…

Posted by wickii | Report as abusive

You mention that Europeans don’t like using antimicrobials to kill bacteria, and that’s quite true. You should also mention that instead, Europeans rely on radiating their food to kill their microbes. It’s more effective, and it doesn’t leave the least bit of residual radiation on their food at all. See how well that flies in San Francisco.

Posted by JackK | Report as abusive

I’d like to expand on earlier comments by OldQuote. To summarize, the gist is that we Americans need to be more self reliant and self educated and less government dependent in matters of food safety. I am not writing in disagreement, but since it is a view seemingly widely held, following its inevitable, logical consequences is called for.

Cooking eggs adequately is thoroughly sensible advice. But my ice cream (and other food products) have raw egg components. I don’t like to cook my ice cream, so no more ice cream. Milk may have PCP’s and they don’t cook away. Milk products be gone. Fruits and veggies may have toxic pesticide residues. Away with fruits and veggies. Table salt could have lead. Away with any foods containing salt. Meat may contain spongiform encephalopathies resistant to heat. Out with the meat and meat byproducts. Cadmium in rice? No rice. Grrr, I didn’t plant a garden this year and I’m getting hungry.

The problem is that in the absence of enforced food safety regulation, 99.8% of Americans have no clue to the provenance of the food they ingest. And no feasible way of finding out or testing the food. So unless we are prepared to each grow our own food, we had better hope and clamour for stringent, effective government food safety oversight or prepare to live short toxic lives.

Posted by ruminations | Report as abusive

Although I agree with the person who posted about how Americans should educate themselves, I disagree with some of the follow up points.

I think it’s atrocious that we routinely sell diseased eggs and meat in America, enough so that “cook it thoroughly” becomes the mantra. Do we really need to move into a time in American history when we can’t eat a sunny side up egg lest we contract a potentially deadly disease?

Everyone should know how to cook, but having good, clean sources of food is equally important.

Posted by TogaParty | Report as abusive

Using ionizing radiation to preserve certain food stuffs are permitted in both EU and the US. In both EU and US radiated food has to be labeled.

Radiation of food in the EU may only be authorized if:

there is a reasonable technological need;
it presents no health hazard;
it is of benefit to the consumers;
it is not used as a substitute for hygiene and health practices or for good manufacturing or agricultural practice;

Any food irradiated as such or containing irradiated food ingredients has to be labelled
A favourable opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) is needed to place a specific food item on the EU-wide list of products authorised for irradiation.

To claim that EU rely on radiation for preservation of food is exaggerated.

Posted by AndreasJ | Report as abusive