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Keeping salmonella at bay burdens state egg farmers

Quality-assurance measures raise costs by precious pennies

September 01, 2010|P.J. Huffstutter

VALLEY CENTER, CALIF. — Amid a rolling landscape of browning chaparral and battered trailers, Alan and Ryan Armstrong's metal henhouses line up like military barracks. Keeping their 450,000 birds safe -- and Salmonella enteritidis out of their henhouses -- is a daily battle.

Since they were old enough to drive the family skip loader and shovel chicken droppings, the Armstrong brothers followed a state-sanctioned quality-assurance program designed to curtail salmonella in eggs. So have dozens more California egg farmers, who helped develop the guidelines alongside federal and state officials following a salmonella outbreak 15 years ago that sickened thousands of people.

The program, which includes vaccinating hens and testing barns regularly for bacteria, has essentially wiped out salmonella on California farms, industry officials say. Yet only nine other states have enacted similar government-sponsored efforts.

One reason, the Armstrongs and other California farmers contend, is cost. Injecting chickens and swabbing cages takes money -- not a fortune, but enough to send egg distributors searching for lower-cost sources.

"We have lost contracts over pennies a dozen," Ryan Armstrong said. "They want cheap eggs."

As the nation grapples with a salmonella outbreak that has made more than 1,500 people ill and led to the recall of 550 million Iowa eggs, the Food and Drug Administration has enacted rules that it said would prevent future outbreaks. The regulations force large operators to buy chicks and young birds, known as pullets, from firms that check for salmonella; create protocols to keep out pests; and perform salmonella tests in henhouses.

Yet farmers, food-safety experts and lawmakers alike warn that the FDA's new regulations may not do enough to prevent another massive recall.

The problem is not a lack of oversight. Fifteen federal agencies and more than two dozen congressional committees are in the business of tracking America's food supply as it moves from farm to fork. There are scores of lobbyists, environmentalists and animal rights groups. But there was no single entity that made sure the Iowa eggs the public ate were, in fact, safe.

What went wrong at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms underscores how regulatory confusion has made it difficult to protect the public and how, say farmers, there are economic incentives to cut corners.

A case study

Last week provided an extraordinary case study. FDA officials said they found salmonella contamination in the feed given to pullets, food that was made at a mill operated by Wright County Egg officials near Galt, Iowa. Feed mills are regulated by the FDA and checked by the state. But Iowa officials said the mill in question wasn't licensed or inspected because Wright County Egg said it didn't sell the feed on the open market, using it only for its own flocks.

"In the confusion between who does what, who tests what and who's responsible for what, Salmonella enteritidis falls through the cracks," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

Indeed, in the world of agriculture, few things are more difficult than getting a healthy chicken to lay a healthy egg. Few people understand that better than the Armstrongs.

The brothers grew up on this dry stretch of northern San Diego County, where their grandfather George poured concrete slab floors and erected corrugated metal and wire walls in 1970. People in egg farming circles called them "the boys," young men who, unlike so many of their peers, never left for city jobs. When their father, Jerry, died in 2000, they took over Armstrong Egg Farms. Alan was 24, Ryan 20.

Their 56 barns -- the largest are longer than a football field and wider than a four-car garage -- stretch across four sites. Their hens lay 180 million eggs a year, some of which are carried at Trader Joe's, Stater Bros. and Ralphs.

A low-tech test

At 9 a.m. on a recent weekday, Alan, a ruddy-faced, barrel-chested man, had been checking on the hens for hours. So had Ryan, his trim younger brother with a quiet country drawl. The thermometer outside read 85 degrees. Inside the barns, it was 10 degrees cooler and the feeders were full -- attractive to rodents and other animals seeking shade and grain. These interlopers are potential salmonella carriers, capable of contaminating feed and water with their excrement.

Once a hen eats the bacteria, they grow in its gastrointestinal tract and spread through its feces. Bacteria can invade the chicken's bloodstream and its ovaries, contaminating the egg.

"Without testing it's difficult to know that there's a problem," said veterinarian Nancy Reimers, a board-certified poultry specialist whose firm has worked with the Armstrongs. The hens "don't give us hints that they're not feeling well ... there's no drop in egg production, no obvious clues."

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