Bad Eggs

Given the theme of this blog, I feel obligated to write something about the big salmonella egg recall.  I guess I've been slow to comment because in some ways it seems like an old story and I really don't have any special insights.

Every now and then some kind of infectious disease gets into our food system wreaks reeks (that too?) havoc.  While our food in generally safe, and probably safer today than at most times in history, huge farms and centralized distribution systems can cause an outbreak to spread far and wide very fast.  So while we get a few outbreaks, they can be pretty bad when they do happen.  Often, as seems to be the case here, the problem can come from a single bad actor.  Actually, I'm a little surprised something much more dramatic hasn't happened yet.

So, what should we do?  Well, I think there are a lot potential solutions to the problem.  I also think those solutions will probably happen more-or-less automatically.  First, folks in the egg business are not going to be happy about the turmoil caused one or two bad corporate eggs.  Producers may welcome and profit from better enforcement of regulations and steeper punishments for those who violate regulations.  Second, there is a powerful movement against confined livestock operations happening in both Europe and here.  This movement has way more legs than I ever thought it would and could lead to substantial changes in chicken and other livestock businesses. While all this could make some kinds of food more expensive, and this could hurt some lower-income families, I rather expect we'll see more of what we've already been seeing: more specialization and heterogeneity in the quality of food.  Third, the Obama administration has already boosted funding for FDA, which tends to be more of an enforcement agency than USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.  Historically, more funding was going to USDA than FDA and FDA just didn't have the resources to enforce regulations (a form of starving the beast?)  Fourth, I think technological solutions to the problem of traceability[bad link, try this one:]  traceability will happen and will help a lot.

It's a shame we need to have a crisis before our system responds adequately to risks like these.  But when a crisis does happen, I think our system does respond quickly. And I think even mass-produced eggs from confined operations can be safe and inexpensive.  The institutions just need some refinement so that products are more traceable and bad actors can be held accountable

My old employer, USDA ERS, has a lot of good information on these issues.


  1. Michael: shouldn't that be "wreaks" havoc ? Unless I am missing clever word play in the context of rotten eggs!
    I am happy to hear about movements against industrial agriculture. Every time I drive around Lubbock and see the huge feedlot operations, it fills me with disgust. What will future generations think of our treatment of animals?


  2. Yeah, I wish I were that clever. Just writing quickly without proof reading. It's strange but I sometimes find my fingers do something different than what I'm thinking. Although I almost made the title "Rotten Eggs," so maybe I was smelling something awful. Does salmonella smell bad? Subliminable word play?


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