Bad Eggs

August 22, 2010

I’m in a serious mood this morning, so be warned before reading further. The food news this week swirled around Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actions to recall a half a billion eggs due to suspected contamination by salmonella. Salmonella is a bacterium that is the leading cause of food poisoning in the United States. Infection by these bacteria as a result of consuming contaminated food typically involves indigestion and flu-like symptoms of relatively short duration, but the infection can be very serious, even fatal. Reported cases of food poisoning from salmonella have been rising dramatically over the last two or three months, and FDA and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are trying to figure out why. There is an argument for suspecting eggs, and here it is:

  • We know that eggs can get contaminated by salmonella in several different ways.
  • We know that people do not always cook their eggs thoroughly. Cooking thoroughly kills bacteria, and reduces the risk of becoming ill to vanishingly small levels.
  • We believe that people are more likely to eat raw or undercooked eggs that they have purchased as so-called “shell eggs” (eggs in the shell), than eggs used in processed foods or prepared by professional cooks.

Δ  An increase in contamination of shell eggs would explain the observed rise in cases of salmonella food poisoning.

Routine monitoring has identified contamination from at least two suppliers of shell eggs, hence FSIS and FDA have acted quickly in ordering the recall. That’s the background. Now for my question: Is there an ethical issue here?

In a lighthearted mood, the answer is “Well, it depends,” but I’m not in a lighthearted mood, and I want to examine some of the things that it depends on. It may not be obvious to everyone, but it does depend on what we mean by “ethics”. If we are talking about a personal code of conduct that individuals follow out of respect for others, and if we see this as different from obeying the law or having sound public policy, that narrows things a bit too much. There is a story out this morning stating that the owner of the egg farm has been cited for several previous violations—everything from worker safety laws to mislabeling product. That starts to sound a bit like an ethics issue, but operating a business (even a household) in our society today often means responding to complaints and paying fines as a matter of course. So we need more context than we currently have from the stories being circulated in the newspaper to say for sure.

I’m not lighthearted about this because regular readers of this blog (if there are any) know that I have a professional relationship with the egg industry. This entails three things that I see as extremely important. First, I know something about egg production and how the industry works. This puts me in a position of moral responsibility to the general public that extends beyond that of the average person, or even the average ethics professor. Second, I worry about whether my relationship compromises my judgment. I worry that I will be too ready to excuse conduct that should be condemned simply because I understand how I might have done the same thing had I been in that position. Third, I know that my relationship with the egg industry leads people to think that I am shilling for the egg industry, despite the fact that I do not receive any financial compensation for my work with egg producers. I am as likely to overstate an ethical concern in a benighted attempt to boost my credibility as I am to understate one because I am too sympathetic with the difficulties that egg producers face.

I’m sorely tempted to do about 4000 words on reflexivity. Academics are misusing this word a lot these days by referring to an activity properly described as “reflective” as “reflexive”. But reflexivity occurs when the process of perceiving, measuring or monitoring a phenomenon dramatically changes the nature of that phenomenon, usually in ways that an un-reflective perceiver is not aware of. One navel-gazing aspect of reflexivity here is that my own attempts at being ethically reflective have been affected by the way that I perceive other people to perceive me. More important, egg safety is itself reflexive. The tools that we have for monitoring salmonella have dramatically changed the way that we conceive egg safety. The rates of salmonella contamination in eggs are so small that one must normally test thousands of eggs to find any at all. The testing itself is a time consuming process that destroys the tested egg, so in using testing, one is looking for a statistically determined rate of salmonella occurrence that one presumes to be representative of eggs that are in the stores and being eaten. What safety means within the context of FDA regulation has been dramatically shaped by these statistical and technological testing procedures. People in the industry believe that there is much less actual contamination by salmonella today than, say, fifty years ago. But is this because technological methods for testing eggs began to be used, or because sanitary conditions in factory farms are actually better than traditional farms? Or were traditional family farms with chickens in barnyards safer? We have no straightforward way to know.

The recent recalls mean that inspectors have seen a rise in this rate of salmonella occurrence in the eggs they are testing, but it is still the case that salmonella is being found in a very small number of eggs. It is also still the case that cooking the egg kills the bacteria, so unless you have been eating raw eggs (like I have), you are very unlikely to get sick. Although there are pundits pronouncing on the causes of contamination, I do not believe we have a very good handle on what might really be causing it. In order to statistically analyze what might be causing contamination, one must test hundreds of thousands of eggs under conditions that isolate the hypothetical cause and compare it to a control group. The control group must be similar to the test group (except for the hypothetical cause) in order for the testing to have any validity. This is expensive and has not been done. As I write this, we don’t know what, specifically, might be causing the rise in contamination. We don’t know whether it is a blip or a trend. More generally, we don’t know which feature of the production system (such as the machinery, the housing of the birds, the feed, etc.) might affect levels of salmonella in eggs. That uncertainty affects our understanding of food safety, too.

Here is another little tidbit  for food ethics: FDA and FSIS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are struggling with one another to see who can appear to be the most pro-active and consumer responsive in this crisis. It’s interesting to note that neither agency’s website even mentions the existence of the other agency. A certain amount of behind the scenes inter-agency politics is definitely affecting the way that this recall episode is being portrayed to the wider public, but that is another (and much longer) story in food policy.

Saying all this can readily be seen as a defense of the industry, but that’s not how I mean it. (That’s another instance of the navel gazing reflexivity I mentioned above.) The FDA is telling people to discard any eggs that you might be unsure of, and I would not contradict that advice. We also know that many people will simply stop eating eggs of any kind for some time. That’s what always happens when news like this hits, and that, too is a reflex action. I’d like to think that ethics involves being reflective, rather than reflexive, but man, that’s a hard road to travel!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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One thought on “Bad Eggs

  1. What does it take to get shut down in this country? Maybe someone in the media should do a little investigative reporting, because there seems to be a bigger problem here than a few isolated incidents. Aren’t these factory farms repeat offenders?

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