Let’s Cage the Salmonella Rhetoric

Salmonella spin from the ”Humane Society” of the United States took another turn for the worse yesterday. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof used his Thursday column (and the Times blog) to mimic the animal rights group in attacking modern egg farms as a supposed breeding ground for the bacteria. “[W]e can overhaul our agriculture system so that it is both safer and more humane — starting with a move toward cage-free eggs,” Kristof writes. But like HSUS, Kristof is plainly wrong.

In the case of the recent recall that involved two Iowa farms, mice appear to have passed Salmonella to eggs after they scavenged on contaminated chicken feed. But rodents are a fact of life for all egg farmers—small and large alike. That includes “cage-free” operations.

At the very least, caged-hen systems can be easier to clean, and they move manure away from the birds more quickly. As one farmer put it: “In a caged environment you are separating the birds from their feces. In a cage-free environment you do not do that …Would you allow a small child to play in his excrement or eat his excrement?”

More troubling is Kristof’s insinuation that a zero-tolerance view toward public health risks should be the primary goalof farm regulation. In this view, even one case of foodborne illness is too many. This is a different point of view from the predominant public-health standard of ensuring a reasonable standard of public safety. Eating has never been a risk-free activity. But whether compared with millennia past or just a few decades ago, it strains credibility to argue that today’s food supply is less safe.

One commenter at the Times blog hit the nail on the head, arguing that although vehicular fatalities would certainly decline (or disappear) if the federal government set a national speed limit of 35 miles per hour, no one would actually accept that as the “cost” of saving lives. Driving 35 would be too inconvenient for people (especially those who live in Montana), even if it could be justified on “public safety” grounds.

Similarly, we could ban skydiving. And while we’re at it, we could toss out NASCAR and boxing, too. Really, any activity that’s enjoyed without a firm NERF wrapping—no matter how fun—could be outlawed. And we might as well ban spinach, tomatoes, and peanut butter. They, too, have been vehicles for deadly disease outbreaks.

Get the picture? Under Kristof’s preferred regime, we’d be reduced to a nation of fraidy-cats in helmets and full-body padding.

Back to eggs: Only about 1 in 20,000 might be contaminated with Salmonella, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average Joe (or Jane) encounters one of these eggs once every 84 years. And if it’s cooked well, there’s zero health risk involved.

Is it really worth forcing farmers to expensively change their infrastructure on the nonsensical theory that it might shift the odds in some imperceptible amount, as HSUS claims to want? The two Iowa farms at the center of our national egg debate already have many opportunities to do that: keeping their barns clean, warding off rodents, and having better reporting habits. But cage-free conversion is (and must be) at the bottom of the list.