Battling salmonella squeezes egg farmers

interns Contributor
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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.

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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.

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