I'm sure everyone has heard about the big egg recall by now. Even though I have plenty of my own fresh eggs to eat, I still keep up on food related news. We sold out of eggs quickly last week and I've already had preorders for this week as well. It's a shame that it takes thousands of people getting sick to get some people to think about how their food is grown or where it comes from.
Most adults realize that advertising lies to us at times to get us to buy a certain product. Here at the farm, we gladly accept clean used egg cartons (along with canning jars and plastic bags) both to keep our costs down and to be eco-friendly. Because of this, I frequently see how commercial egg producers try and paint a picture of themselves as small friendly farms rather than the monstrous factories that they really are. Locally, the affected brand is Hillandale Farms and I see those cartons all the time, much more frequently than the organic free range advertising ones. It is noted on the front that they are distributed by farms in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa and when you open the carton there is a large printed American flag along with the words "Thank you for purchasing Hillandale Farms eggs! Just 12 (or 18) eggs to you, but a reputation to us!"
While that practically screams that they care about you personally, the AP article in our local paper painted a very different reputation than implied on the package. 550,000,000 eggs recalled. 1,300 people officially ill, with probably many more affected who didn't seek medical treatment. I've seen estimates that guess for every one case confirmed, as many as 30 others get food poisoning. in this case, that would up the number of sickened people to as many as 36,000. As if that wasn't bad enough, DeCoster Egg Farms, the other farm involved in the recall, was also fined in 1994 for environmental violations concerning hog waste, being designated a "habitual violator" in 2000. In 1997, the affiliate farm in Maine was described as being "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop" by the nation's labor secretary. In 2002, the farm reached a $1.5 million settlement with an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by Mexican women who were sexually harassed, retaliated against, and even raped on the job. The farms have been the subject of multiple raids by immigration, with 51 illegal workers arrested in 2007. And as recently as June of this year, the farm paid $25,000 in penalties and $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over videotaped instances of animal cruelty. While the paper didn't go into details on the latter, I found a web article by Maine Public Broadcasting stating the tapes showed "birds crammed into cages with inadequate food and water; birds left untreated for injuries and illnesses and live birds swung by the neck and thrown in the trash."
Surveys consistently show that Americans support small family farms and don't want food that comes from the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO's (aka "factory farms"). I highly doubt there are many customers looking to support any company that mistreats animals, disregards environmental regulations, hires illegal immigrants, rapes them, and exposes employees to highly dangerous conditions. Yet they are still in business. Why? It says to me that our food system is broken. That people want to care, but don't know how to start changing their food buying habits. The government doesn't make it easy to find out about these things, thanks in large part to the lobbies of various big agriculture players. These lobbyists are also buying off Congressmen and -women to prevent the passing of harsh laws that would protect consumers and put places like this out of business, all in the name of protecting the American way of free trade and capitalism. For consumers, it's far more convenient to just pick up whatever brand they are carrying at Wal-Mart than take personal responsibility for those workers and birds we'll never meet face to face. I'm as guilty as anyone else; before I met my husband I didn't grow my own food and thought very little about who did. It only hits home when people you know and love can get sick or even die from something as routine as eating breakfast!
The only way, in my opinion, to fight this is to stay small. If you, as a consumer, find a farm you can support, tell a friend or two. Write the farm a good review here on LocalHarvest or other similar sites so others will know what these farms are all about. Be bold and ask questions about where your food comes from, not only to the farmers at the markets, but to the manager at your favorite local eatery. Businesses aim to give the customers what they want, and if enough of us ask for local and sustainable, we can make a difference. And for those of you who visit our farm and other small farms like it, you are the difference that allows us to stay in business doing what we love, treating the animals, humans, and environment that we share with love and respect.