Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich is running for County Executive with public financing and plans to take on developers. Kim R. Ford is challenging fourteen-term Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton for her seat. We talk to both of them about their campaigns and look at the biggest political news of the week.
A nationwide recall of 500 million eggs has been traced to a pair of producers in Iowa. Some say that consolidation within the industry is cause for greater oversight — these days, a small number of companies are responsible for the vast majority of the supply. We explore whether new FDA rules and pending legislation can safeguard our food system.
- Lyndsey Layton Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later on the broadcast, summer isn't over yet and we've got hundreds of miles of bike-friendly roads to explore in the area. But first, Americans like to think we have choices. In most supermarkets, there are dozens of brands of eggs, but all those different labels don't necessarily mean the eggs come from different farms.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAn outbreak of salmonella last week highlighted just how few egg producers there are now. The half a billion eggs that were recalled were from just two producers. And no one seems to know who is responsible for overseeing these huge consolidated egg farms. There was a lot of finger-pointing over the outbreak. Should the Food and Drug Administration be responsible or the U.S. Department of Agriculture? And what's the role of the states in inspecting farms? A bill with new regulations was sitting in Congress and looked like it wasn't going anywhere, but the issue is looking a lot more urgent now. Joining us from studios at The Washington Post is Lyndsey Layton. Lyndsey Layton is a staff writer for The Washington Post. Lyndsey, thank you, for joining us.
MS. LYNDSEY LAYTONWell, thanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDITwenty years ago, there were more than 2,000 egg producers. Now, there are just 192 supplying most of our eggs. What does that tell us?
LAYTONWell, that's true, Kojo. The egg industry has undergone a serious, significant consolidation in the last 20 years. And as you said, there are now just 192 companies that control 95 percent of the laying hens in this country. And so that means we've got these massive operations that are concentrated in about five states, where you've got hen -- you've got hatching facilities that hatch the pullets, the young hens that lay the eggs. Then you've got the hen laying facilities. Then you've got packaging plants. And they're all kind of amassed in these huge campuses, mostly concentrated in Iowa, Ohio, California states. There's kind of an egg belt. And what that means is that if you've got a problem in one of these massive complexes, we're talking about a lot of food that gets affected, a lot of eggs.
NNAMDIAnd so we think when we walk into the supermarket to buy eggs that we see all of these labels, and we think we have a really wide and varied selection of choices. There may not be as many as we think there are because a lot of them come -- are coming from the same producers.
LAYTONThat's right. As you said, the two companies that are implicated in this current national outbreak were packaging their products under 24 different labels. You know, in many cases, they sell to a distributor who can then turn around and package them under a different brand name or sell it to another party who repackages it and so on. And so it looks like you've got 24 different companies, but they're really just all coming from the same two massive factories.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Lyndsey Layton -- she is a staff writer at The Washington Post -- about the recall of half a billion eggs last week as the result of a salmonella outbreak. If you're interested in joining the conversation, were you affected by the egg recall? What do you do to make sure the eggs you eat are safe? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Send a tweet at kojoshow, or shoot us an email to email@example.com. Lyndsey, what has this consolidation done to egg production? Has it helped consumers? Are eggs cheaper? What are the pros and cons of it?
LAYTONWell, really, what's driven it is the economies of scale, and that's also why Iowa has become the really big egg center -- because corn, which is the feed that's given to these chickens, is cheap out there. And so a lot of these egg producers, even then, when they started on the east, they've migrated out to Iowa where the feed is cheap. They don't have to transport it, and that means the eggs are cheap. They don't -- you know, they can -- they have a tremendous pressure in the egg industry to keep prices low.
LAYTONConsumers, you know, they expect that a dozen eggs is going to cost them about $1.60. That's what they want to spend, and that's -- and these producers are able to do it through these giant warehouses, where you've got millions of hens who are laying millions of eggs that cost just a couple of cents to produce.
NNAMDIThe owner of one of the two farms, Austin Jack DeCoster, was known to regulators in several states for violations. And you wrote about the fact that he was sued in Maryland for violating a quarantine and selling tainted eggs. Yet he was able to continue to operate farms around the country. How come?
LAYTONThis was really interesting. If you look at his history on the eastern shore, this is a man who started with about 150 eggs in rural Maine in 1949. And he built a pretty big facility in Maine. And then he comes to Maryland in 1980 on the eastern shore, and he sets up two operations, one in Cecil County, one in Kent County. And pretty soon after he's in well underway in production, and he starts to get into trouble. His eggs are implicated in a couple of outbreaks in other states. New York's, at one point, banned his eggs because state health officials there said that they were linked to three outbreaks in the state, one where 11 people died. They were in a New York hospital, and they were fed these eggs. And they came down with salmonella infection and died.
LAYTONSo he's had a -- he had a troubled history in Maryland, and then he finds some salmonella. He's doing internal testing in his henhouses, and he detects it in his Kent County facility. So the state of Maryland imposes a quarantine to stop him from selling eggs anywhere, except for pasteurization. Pasteurization kills salmonella bacteria, but he's, you know, prevented from selling his eggs in the state or anywhere else because the state health officials say that consuming these eggs that are unpasteurized would be a risk to health.
LAYTONAnd Jack DeCoster sues the state. He takes Maryland to federal court, and he successfully argues that Maryland has no authority to interfere with interstate commerce. He wins on the federal level, and the federal judge tells Maryland, "You might be worried about these eggs, but you have no right to be concerned about the health of people who live outside of Maryland." So...
NNAMDIJust amazing, but go ahead, Lyndsey.
LAYTONYeah, so he goes ahead, and most of his production out of that Kent County facility was distributed nationwide. So he's able to -- you know, he's back in business. He's moving eggs across the country. And Maryland, they're so frustrated, the prosecutors, they come back at him, and they accuse him of selling -- of breaking the quarantine in the state and selling eggs locally.
LAYTONThey found his eggs at a couple of local markets and at a detention center, and so there's a criminal local case. And he is actually found not guilty of most of the charges, except for one and was given a suspended fine of $500, so basically a slap on the wrist.
LAYTONBut he is so fed up with Maryland and the quarantine that is still in effect in terms of his operations inside Maryland, that he folds up and sells his business and leaves the state in 1993 and concentrates on his Iowa and Maine facilities. So here's...
NNAMDISince you mentioned Iowa and -- oh, go ahead, please, Lyndsey.
LAYTONSo it just -- Kojo, as you were saying, here's a situation where you've got this regulatory framework where the state sees a threat and cannot shut this operation down. And the FDA, which did come down at one point and do some testing in his facility, took no action. And the USDA, you know, which also has a role in food safety, is only concerned about the health of the hens and not the eggs. And since the hens weren't getting sick from salmonella, they were just carrying the bacteria and transferring it to the eggs, the USDA had no presence in this case at all.
NNAMDISo that a lot of his operations and others like it, DeCoster will simply fall through the regulatory cracks. New FDA regulations did go into effect last month, but it's my understanding that that was too late to prevent an outbreak. However, what are those rules?
LAYTONWell, those rules would set standards for the first time that the federal standards that egg producers would have to meet. They would have -- they'd be required for the first time to do bacterial testing inside their henhouses and on their products. They're also required to refrigerate the eggs, you know, a certain amount of time after they've been laid. There are some other requirements, too.
LAYTONBut for the time, basically, it sets up some basic sanitary ground rules that would apply to all egg production facilities in this country that really hadn't existed before and which had been first proposed about 20 years ago. The FDA had tried to do this 20 years ago, but for various reasons, the rules never took effect until just last month.
NNAMDISpeaking of Iowa and Maine, here is Phil calling from Frederick, Md. Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PHILYeah, hi, I've been reading The Washington Post. You guys are doing a good job. The question I think I have is we went to the auto industry, you know, too big to fail. We went to the banks, too big to fail. Everything is consolidating. It's the publishers, the newspapers. Now, we have chicken farms all consolidating, too big to fail.
PHILWe have state representatives arguing, oh, well, it's the economy. The state is jobs. We can't touch the sky. We're going to lose jobs. It's another evidence of the same old thing. It's too big to fail. And antitrust -- I haven't heard anything about antitrust regulations in years being enforced.
PHILBut anyway, what evidence is there that Senator Grassley, who's running for re-election, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe in Maine have had any influence or effect on this guy's operations? Is there any political background to this guy being able to sort of drift from one place to another without being touched, or what is the political background of this guy? Thanks a lot.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Lyndsey Layton?
LAYTONWell, that's an excellent question, and certainly, you can be sure that there are many people who are wondering the same thing. And we're working on some reporting now. We're taking a look at Mr. DeCoster and any sort of political activities. But I have to say I don't think we've found very much in terms of his involvement with individual congressional candidates, and it seems that he's been active in efforts to stave off some legislation on...
NNAMDIWhich is the bill in Congress, the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed the House last year. It didn't look like it was going anywhere in the Senate until the salmonella outbreak. Is that what you were talking about?
LAYTONActually, Kojo, there are some legislation pending at the state level around the country...
LAYTON...that has to do with -- it's okay. There's a lot going on in this issue, but there's some legislation in California, actually, that was just signed into law by the governor which would require egg farmers which would prohibit them from using some of the cages that -- these confined spaces for the hens and would require more room and free-range hens. And so I know Mr. DeCoster has been active in lobbying or funding efforts to defeat that kind of legislation, but we really haven't seen him making a lot of contributions to Senate or congressional candidates.
NNAMDIHow about the Food Safety Modernization Act that I mentioned earlier that seems to have been given new life as a result of the salmonella outbreak? What would that bill do?
LAYTONWell, that's an excellent question. That bill, as you said, it was passed in the House more than a year ago. It's been pending in the Senate, and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere. Now, people are saying that this egg recall is going to give it new mojo when the Senate comes back next month, that they're going to pass it. That bill would give the FDA significant new authorities. It would be the biggest overhaul in food safety laws that we have in 70 years. The FDA would -- for instance, in this case, the FDA could -- would be able to require a recall. I think a lot of people are surprised to know that the FDA has no legal authority to force a food producer to recall its products. It has to ask them to do it, and often those -- it has to negotiate the terms and it takes a long time.
LAYTONUnder this bill, the FDA could do it immediately. It would also give the FDA access to a company's internal microbial testing records. They could go into an outfit like DeCoster, demand the records because most of these companies do their own internal testing. They could see the paper trail, and, you know, maintenance records, equipment records, all of the stuff that you'd want to do if you've got an outbreak of an illness, and you're trying to pinpoint it or you're trying to prevent, you're trying to flag a problem and prevent a future outbreak.
LAYTONIt would also give the agency the tools to do much faster trace back, and that is actually important in this case because you've got a really big producer with a very wide distribution. And it's taking some time to figure out where all those eggs go because the recordkeeping is not uniform, and it's not accessible to the regulators. This law, if it's approved, would require the food processors to keep their records in a -- probably a digital format that's uniform so the FDA has very easy access and can see exactly where the distribution of the product goes and they can get it off the shelves faster.
NNAMDIHow are eggs contaminated with salmonella?
LAYTONOh, that's a really good question. And you know, for the longest time -- salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of a chicken. And for the longest time, the belief was that it would come out through the feces, and it would get passed to the chickens back and forth because they'd be mixing and touching the feces. And eggs would also come into contact with the feces, and that's how contamination happened. But after the DeCoster case -- this is actually very interesting, the DeCoster case in Maryland -- the state health officials there discovered that it can also be passed through an infected chicken through the ovaries. So when the hen is producing the egg, the bacteria is inside the egg. It comes out through the ovaries already infected. And that has implications for cleanup because if it's external, you know, if it's on the outside of the egg, you just wash it, and that's how you can just wash it and clean it and be rid of it. But if it's inside the egg...
LAYTON...there's no way you can wash that off, and so it means the only way you can kill it is through heat, through pasteurization or through cooking.
NNAMDIIndeed, there are ways for people to protect themselves. One, as Lyndsey mentioned, cooking an egg well. There's a government website with guidelines on handling egg safely at www.foodsafety.gov. That's foodsafety.gov, I should say, is the website. Foodsafety.gov and you can find a link to our website at kojoshow.org. Here is Alice in Ashton, Md. Hi, Alice. You’re on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALICEThank you. It is obvious from the egg recall that neither the FDA nor the USDA has any real understanding of nutrition or food safety. These are contaminated toxic waste dumpsites that these operations are. And the harm -- the environmental degradation, the contaminated animals, the abuse of the animals, how sick the animals are -- they're unfit for consumption. It's well-documented. And to try to say that these operations should stay open in any way, shape or form, borders on the absurd. And what the FDA has done is try to use pasteurization, which destroys the nutrients in the eggs that have nutrients -- which are not these eggs -- rather than shut these places down because the contamination is so widespread. People need to buy local. They need to buy from their ecological farms. The problem is -- with this legislation is these departments and agencies go after the small farmers. In Maryland, they raid farmers' markets to keep farmers from handing out free samples while our pets are dying from this food coming in...
NNAMDIAlice, we are running out of time very quickly, but we did get a post on our Facebook page from Jason making the same argument. "The answer is simple," writes Jason. "Let people grow, raise their own chickens. One of the biggest hurdles is that zoning regulations effectively make that impossible. Does it legalize chickens in Arlington to see how a local group is forming to make a difference?"
NNAMDIAnd we got a post on our Facebook also from Paul who said, "When the brand list came out, and I saw all different names these eggs were sold under, I did think to myself that I'm lucky to buy my eggs at the Dupont Farmer's Market. The lady we buy it from raises the chickens and collects the eggs, and we know her eggs are not mixed with millions of others where the cross-contamination is likely." And we got an e-mail, Lyndsey, from someone who asked if these people also supply the organic eggs, certified organic eggs, coming from the same producers.
LAYTONAs far as I know about the two companies in the center of this outbreak are not certified organic egg producers.
NNAMDIThere are lot of labels on eggs these days, cage-free, organic. I mentioned free-range. Aren't those labels regulated by the government at all?
LAYTONActually, Kojo, I'm not sure about the cage-free and free-range chickens. Organic has a legal definition, and that is regulated by the Department of Agriculture. You know, the larger point, I think, that some of the writers and the callers are making about -- suggesting that free-range or cage-free are healthier, there is an allotted data that backs that up. You know, bacteria don't really discriminate between a factory chicken and a free-range chicken. The only difference really is that you're talking about the scale of the problem.
LAYTONSo if you've got an infected hen that's in a large, congested, factory farm, the chances of transmitting that disease to another hen are greater. And if this is a massive production, if you've got some contamination, it can spread more quickly and then affect more people. But we really don’t have data that show that a free roaming chicken on an organic farm is any less likely to get sick from salmonella.
NNAMDIAnd this is the story that we'll be continuing to watch, even as Lindsey Layton continues the coverage. She is a staff writer at The Washington Post. Lindsey, thank you for joining us.
LAYTONOh, it's always a pleasure, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDICertainly is for me, too. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, your bike riding options in the DMV -- that's the hip way of saying, the District Maryland and Virginia. I am Kojo Nnamdi.
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