[Marxism] Egg recall exposes unsafe US food supply
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
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
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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