Are Free-Range Eggs Safer?


The largest egg recall in U.S. history is underway, after a salmonella outbreak more than doubled the number of such cases between May and July, from an anticipated 700 to almost 2,000. The eggs have been traced to two Iowa egg producers, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, but more than two dozen different brands and distributors in 17 states have been affected. When a salmonella outbreak on two Iowa farms leads to a nationwide recall of a half-billion eggs, it points to a bigger question: what happened to the food system?

America is growing increasingly dependent on industrial agriculture: fewer—and larger—farms are feeding the country. At so-called factory farms, food production is a decidedly nonbucolic business: animals are pumped up with antibiotics and hormones and confined in tiny spaces. An estimated 95 percent of America's eggs are produced at just 192 farms, down from 2,500 in 1987. But is industrial agriculture to blame for the salmonella outbreak?

The Worst Food Scares in American History Elise Amendola / AP

No, says Darrell Trampel, a poultry-extension veterinarian and poultry diagnostician at Iowa State University. Buying organic or local doesn't necessarily mean you're protected from diseases. The source of the outbreak is still under investigation, but one likely culprit is mice, which can be a problem for farms of any size, Trampel says. The particular strain of salmonella associated with eggs—Salmonella enteritidis—emerged in the late 1980s, when it moved from rodents to chickens.

"We had large production facilities in place before these problems occurred," Trampel says. "Even today, we find Salmonella enteritidis on small organic farms—it's not just the big ones."

Still, for local egg producers, the outbreak has been an unexpected boon, as customers turn to farmers' markets instead of supermarkets. Smaller farms, many of which tout their free-range and organically fed products, may intuitively feel like a safer choice to some shoppers. But while small-scale producers may be more humane, salmonella outbreaks aren't unique to large-scale operations.

Despite the hype, there's contradictory evidence about whether eggs laid by free-range or organically fed hens are less likely to contract the bacteria than eggs laid in factory-farm settings. According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, claims that chickens labeled "kosher," "free range," "organic," or "natural" have lower salmonella levels are unsubstantiated.

But the proliferation of large-scale industrial food production does mean that when there is a problem, it's magnified. As a result, salmonella outbreaks on two Iowa farms can sicken thousands across the country. Smaller farms produce less food, and that food often doesn't travel too far from farm to table. As a result, outbreaks are relatively isolated and affect fewer people. But this model is rapidly changing as food production and distribution becomes a national affair.

Photos: Prominent Product Recalls in Recent History Photos: Kyodo-Landov (left); Bettmann-Corbis

"In the last 10 years, we've seen more and more cases where it's dozens of states—huge sections of the country," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer-advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

Yesterday, Tyson Foods recalled 380,000 pounds of deli meat sold in sandwiches at Walmart stores because of a potential contamination with listeria, a bacterium that can cause high fever, headaches, and nausea. Last year hundreds were sickened by a salmonella outbreak that was ultimately traced to peanut butter produced in Georgia and distributed around the country. Vegetables aren't immune, either—an outbreak of E. coli bacteria in 2006 sickened more than 200 people and killed three in 26 states. It was traced back to Dole prepackaged spinach grown in just one field in California.

"It's not just the egg industry that looks like this," Lovera says. "We've seen this type of concentration in big operations across the board, ranging from dairy to pork to cattle, or to corn and soybeans and crops. There are a small number of players that are very, very large."