Amid a rolling landscape of browning chaparral and battered trailers, Alan and Ryan Armstrong’s metal henhouses line up like military barracks. Keeping their 450,000 birds safe -- and Salmonella enteritidis out of their henhouses -- is a daily battle.
Since they were old enough to drive the family skip loader and shovel chicken droppings, the Armstrong brothers followed a state-sanctioned quality-assurance program designed to curtail salmonella in eggs. So have dozens more California egg farmers, who helped develop the guidelines alongside federal and state officials following a salmonella outbreak 15 years ago that sickened thousands of people.
The program, which includes vaccinating hens and testing barns regularly for bacteria, has essentially wiped out salmonella on California farms, industry officials say. Yet only nine other states have enacted similar government-sponsored efforts.
One reason, the Armstrongs and other California farmers contend, is cost. Injecting chickens and swabbing cages takes money -- not a fortune, but enough to send egg distributors searching for lower-cost sources.
“We have lost contracts over pennies a dozen,” Ryan Armstrong said. “They want cheap eggs.”
As the nation grapples with a salmonella outbreak that has made more than 1,500 people ill and led to the recall of 550 million Iowa eggs, the Food and Drug Administration has enacted rules that it said would prevent future outbreaks. The regulations force large operators to buy chicks and young birds, known as pullets, from firms that check for salmonella; create protocols to keep out pests; and perform salmonella tests in henhouses.
Yet farmers, food-safety experts and lawmakers alike warn that the FDA’s new regulations may not do enough to prevent another massive recall.
The problem is not a lack of oversight. Fifteen federal agencies and more than two dozen congressional committees are in the business of tracking America’s food supply as it moves from farm to fork. There are scores of lobbyists, environmentalists and animal rights groups. But there was no single entity that made sure the Iowa eggs the public ate were, in fact, safe.
What went wrong at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms underscores how regulatory confusion has made it difficult to protect the public and how, say farmers, there are economic incentives to cut corners.
A case study
Last week provided an extraordinary case study. FDA officials said they found salmonella contamination in the feed given to pullets, food that was made at a mill operated by Wright County Egg officials near Galt, Iowa. Feed mills are regulated by the FDA and checked by the state. But Iowa officials said the mill in question wasn’t licensed or inspected because Wright County Egg said it didn’t sell the feed on the open market, using it only for its own flocks.
“In the confusion between who does what, who tests what and who’s responsible for what, Salmonella enteritidis falls through the cracks,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
Indeed, in the world of agriculture, few things are more difficult than getting a healthy chicken to lay a healthy egg. Few people understand that better than the Armstrongs.
The brothers grew up on this dry stretch of northern San Diego County, where their grandfather George poured concrete slab floors and erected corrugated metal and wire walls in 1970. People in egg farming circles called them “the boys,” young men who, unlike so many of their peers, never left for city jobs. When their father, Jerry, died in 2000, they took over Armstrong Egg Farms. Alan was 24, Ryan 20.
Their 56 barns -- the largest are longer than a football field and wider than a four-car garage -- stretch across four sites. Their hens lay 180 million eggs a year, some of which are carried at Trader Joe’s, Stater Bros. and Ralphs.
A low-tech test
At 9 a.m. on a recent weekday, Alan, a ruddy-faced, barrel-chested man, had been checking on the hens for hours. So had Ryan, his trim younger brother with a quiet country drawl. The thermometer outside read 85 degrees. Inside the barns, it was 10 degrees cooler and the feeders were full -- attractive to rodents and other animals seeking shade and grain. These interlopers are potential salmonella carriers, capable of contaminating feed and water with their excrement.
Once a hen eats the bacteria, they grow in its gastrointestinal tract and spread through its feces. Bacteria can invade the chicken’s bloodstream and its ovaries, contaminating the egg.
“Without testing it’s difficult to know that there’s a problem,” said veterinarian Nancy Reimers, a board-certified poultry specialist whose firm has worked with the Armstrongs. The hens “don’t give us hints that they’re not feeling well ... there’s no drop in egg production, no obvious clues.”
Discovering salmonella can be surprisingly low-tech. After pulling on sky-blue plastic booties over their scuffed work boots, the brothers stepped through the mesh door of a pullet barn. Birds scattered.
Four weeks ago, these scrawny hens were day-old, pear-sized balls of fluff. They arrived in ventilated plastic boxes, cheeping and defecating on a paper lining.
That lining can provide the first inkling of salmonella. The farmers remove the paper, roll it into a container and drive it to a state-run laboratory in Riverside, where scientists perform an “environmental test” on the feces.
“It helps us make sure there wasn’t a problem at the hatchery,” Alan Armstrong said.
The cost: one-third of a penny per chick. The new FDA rules do not require the test.
The Armstrongs strode across the barn full of young white birds. By this point, each animal had received a salmonella vaccine, sprayed in the water. By October, they will get two more -- including one by injection.
The brothers and their employees are trained to give the shots. On a good day, two people can vaccinate 10,000 chickens. The cost for one year: about 5 cents per bird.
The new FDA rule does not require U.S. egg farmers to vaccinate their birds. Agency officials ruled there wasn’t enough evidence that salmonella vaccines are effective.
In December, the Armstrongs’ chickens will be about 18 weeks old and large enough to be moved to an egg-laying barn. A second environmental test will be done: A cotton pad is soaked in condensed milk and, like a mop, dragged through chicken poop. (The milk allows any bacteria present in the droppings to survive while being transported to a lab.)
A little means a lot
The FDA now requires egg farmers to conduct this test three times. The California program used by 95% of the state’s large producers demands five tests.
During the average two-year lifespan of these California hens, they will be vaccinated three times, have their droppings checked five times and have their feed tested six times.
The total cost per bird: about 8.5 cents.
But in the egg world, such a seemingly small sum can mean the difference between profit and loss.
In the late 1980s, about 2,500 commercial egg producers served the U.S. market. Today, fewer that 200 big operators dominate the trade, using economies of scale to drive down production costs.
Many of the cheapest eggs are produced in the Midwest, where energy, farmland and feed cost less and where regulations are less onerous.
As a result, Iowa egg operators can undercut the competition. Last month it cost Midwest farmers 53.5 cents to produce a dozen eggs, about 16% less than in California, according to Iowa State University’s Egg Industry Center.
Fullerton wholesaler Michael Sencer, whose company supplies food service firms and chains including Ralphs, Costco and Trader Joe’s, bought inventory from Wright County Egg. His customers, he said, liked the low prices and ready supply.
“It drives the demand for Iowa eggs here in California and everywhere,” said Sencer, executive vice president of Hidden Villa Ranch.
Those same customers are now scrambling. Wholesale egg prices have jumped 20% in California since the recall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. One key reason: There are 7.5 million Midwest laying hens currently not producing eggs for the nation’s breakfasts. But in the Golden State, there are only 19 million hens -- enough to meet just 56% of California’s demand.
How long these new customers stick around, and whether less stringent safety practices will tarnish the public’s appetite for the whole industry, remains to be seen.
“We talk about it every day,” Ryan Armstrong said. “All we can do is hope and wait.”