[Marxism] Egg recall exposes unsafe US food supply

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 25 07:22:58 MDT 2010

Egg recall exposes unsafe US food supply
By Naomi Spencer
25 August 2010

The recall of more than half a billion eggs potentially tainted 
with salmonella is expanding to more states and companies across 
the US a week after it was first announced. The eggs, all produced 
by two closely linked Iowa companies, Wright County Egg and 
Hillandale Farms, are responsible for a mass outbreak of food 
poisoning that has sickened thousands since May.

In a separate development, Tyson Foods, the country’s largest meat 
producer, announced Tuesday a recall of 380,000 pounds of deli 
meats distributed to Wal-Mart stores nationwide that are 
potentially contaminated with Listeria.

The recalls underscore the vulnerability of the population to the 
most preventable illnesses because of the subordination of public 
health and food safety to the profit motive. Corporations have 
been allowed to engage in blatantly unsafe practices, with nominal 
fines, while the government has rejected even the most basic steps 
required to improve food safety.

According to an August 22 Washington Post report, federal 
investigations into 26 salmonella outbreaks traced 15 back to 
Wright County Egg, which recalled 380 million eggs last week.

No deaths have so far been recorded, but salmonella causes fever, 
severe vomiting and diarrhea and abdominal pain. It can also cause 
fatal infections if the bacteria enters the bloodstream. At least 
1,300 cases of officially reported salmonella poisoning between 
May and July may have been caused by tainted eggs.

This figure likely grossly understates the real rate of illness. 
According to government figures, approximately one in every 38 
cases of salmonella poisoning is officially recorded—meaning that 
the true number of cases caused by the tainted eggs could number 
in the tens of thousands.

Wright County Egg’s owner, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, has a long 
history of egregious health, labor and environmental violations, 
as well as numerous charges of animal cruelty. DeCoster has family 
and substantial financial ties to Hillandale Farms, which recalled 
170 million eggs Friday, and the two companies purchase their 
chickens and feed through the same suppliers.

On August 21, the Washington Post published a partial list of 
violations and allegations against DeCoster, dating back to the 
mid-1990s. In 1996, the Labor Department fined DeCoster $3.6 
million for brutal conditions at his Turner egg farm.

Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich, writing for the Christian 
Science Monitor blog August 24, commented, “DeCoster agreed to pay 
a $2 million penalty (the most we could throw at him) for some of 
the most heinous workplace violations I’d seen. His workers had 
been forced to live in trailers infested with rats and handle 
manure and dead chickens with their bare hands. It was an 
agricultural sweatshop.”

At the same time, DeCoster was charged by the state of Iowa for 
violating environmental laws because of manure runoff in rivers 
from his chicken and hog farm operations. In 2001 the Iowa Supreme 
Court ruled that DeCoster was a “repeat violator” and forbidden to 
expand hog farming operations in the state.

In the same year, the Washington Post notes, DeCoster Farms of 
Iowa settled a complaint for $1.5 million, brought by the Equal 
Employment Opportunity Commission, that the company had subjected 
11 undocumented Mexican women workers to a “sexually hostile work 
environment,” including rape and sexual assault by their 
supervisors. The next year, the DeCoster family was fined by the 
Occupational Safety and Health Administration for multiple 
violations in Maine, and DeCoster paid $3.2 million to settle 
another lawsuit filed by Mexican workers over deplorable housing 
and working conditions.

In 2006, the Ohio state department of agriculture revoked permits 
of Ohio Fresh Eggs because the company’s co-owners did not 
disclose that DeCoster had paid for the purchase of the operations 
almost in entirety, putting up $126 million. The other owners, who 
include Orland Bethel, the founder of Hillandale Farms, kept 
DeCoster’s involvement secret in order to avoid a state background 
check on his violator status in Iowa.

A 2006 Forbes investigative report detailed foul conditions at 
Ohio Fresh Farms that are similar to the conditions at Wright 
County Egg and that contributed to the widespread salmonella 
contamination. Forbes reported, “In the three years of its 
existence the company has incurred dozens of enforcement actions 
from the state, up to seven issued in a single day, for such 
violations as promoting swarms of flies at ‘extreme levels’ and 
discarding empty vaccine vials, mixed in with manure in a vacant 
field.” Inspectors found salmonella on-site, and the operation was 
found to be one the worst emitters of ammonia, which contributes 
to smog and causes lung and skin irritation.

DeCoster’s actions are far from unique. The US meat and poultry 
industry is notorious for such conditions. Across the food and 
drug industry, product contaminations are so common that recalls 
are announced on a daily basis. The federal Centers for Disease 
Control and Prevention estimates that 81 million cases of 
food-related illnesses occur each year nationwide, causing up to 
9,000 deaths.

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees 
shell egg production, is complicit in allowing this state of 
affairs. With only 450 inspectors charged with visiting 156,000 
sites, operations such as Wright County Egg are inspected by the 
FDA fewer than one time in a year, and many deplorable 
conditions—overcrowding of animals, high levels of steroid and 
antibiotic use—are accepted as permissible industry norms.

Rather than protecting the health of the population, the FDA 
functions more as a mechanism for companies to access consumers 
that have no way of determining whether the food products they are 
presented with are safe. The FDA’s food safety program has had its 
funding halved over the past decade, and it lacks even the ability 
to force a company to recall an unsafe product. Instead, it can 
only request that companies voluntarily issue a recall, which 
companies can simply refuse to do.

Significantly, a survey of FDA scientists registered a broad lack 
of confidence in the agency’s capacity to protect the population 
from food-borne illness in eggs. The survey, conducted by the 
Union of Concerned Scientists before the current salmonella 
outbreak, found that only half of FDA scientists believed that the 
food safety system was an adequate protection against becoming 
sickened by tainted eggs.

The Obama administration, and congressional Democrats in 
particular, have strained to appear stringent on federal 
regulations in the wake of the recall, including pointing to 
legislation issued in July that would require regular testing for 
contamination and cleanliness. However, this minimal increase in 
enforcement powers will not even go into effect until 2012.

Moreover, in crafting its new egg safety rules, the FDA rejected a 
proposal to require vaccination of hens against salmonella, 
according to an August 24 report by the New York Times. The 
vaccinations are credited with a 95 percent drop in human 
salmonella illnesses in Britain over the past ten years. It costs 
about one penny per dozen eggs.

The relation of the FDA to the food industry is indicative of the 
relation of the government to private companies as a whole. At 
every step, from production through to marketing, public health is 
dependent on voluntary safety measures of big business.

In this respect, the food poisoning outbreaks bare a similarity to 
recent disasters in the energy industry. In the pursuit of greater 
profits, cost-cutting on safety and basic conditions on the part 
of Massey Energy, BP, and giant food industry corporations have 
all created catastrophes for the working class. In spite of 
repeated violations, including practices that endanger the health 
of millions of people, criminals such as DeCoster, Massey CEO Don 
Blankenship, and former BP head Tony Hayward are not only 
permitted to continue in business, but are enabled by the 
government to do so, under Obama no less than under Bush.

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