Recall Roulette

A recent headline read “Nearly 207 million eggs from a farm in North Carolina are being recalled.” If you saw this headline your response was most likely “Wow, that sounds like a lot of eggs.” Then maybe you’d check the eggs in your fridge to see if they were the ones in question, and if they weren’t you’d assume it wasn’t your day to get sick and forget about it. Headlines like this have been normalized, they don’t have the impact they used to. When there’s a recall, we’ve been conditioned as consumers to mentally check our food intake for the last few days and that’s about all. We accept larger and larger, ever more frequent food recalls as a matter of fact. Should they mean anything? If so, what? Check your fridge? Eggs are unsafe? Don’t eat Romaine lettuce? To borrow an old idiom, we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. We need to look at recalls; these eggs, romaine lettuce, cantaloupe, ground beef, each as a tree. With that perspective you quickly start building a food safety forest, and that’s a dark and scary forest. One that makes you nervous and makes you ask Why are there so many recalls? How did we get here? How do I get out of here?

These trees grew slowly and steadily, over many decades, as the food system relentlessly scaled. A recall has the effect of panicking us in the present, conveying only a sense of urgency related to a present and developing food safety event, not an acknowledgement of or contention with a long-term pattern. If we limit our experience to the present, we obscure the root cause. Our modern food system is an incredible achievement of abundance, production and distribution efficiencies, with incredibly low costs that provide an inexhaustible and cheap inventory of food. But it also makes us sick while socializing our healthcare costs, indentures rural economies, degrades and erodes our soils, and contaminates our water. Most recalls follow a similar cadence, “X Number of units of product Y, recalled from Z farm.” Although these announcements typically read “farm” they seldom recall food from places that you would consider a “farm”. They’re more like factories. The scale is incredible, and they should be called what they are, highly efficient food factories, not farms. Let’s not argue the semantics of what constitutes a farm, instead let’s just paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and his famous quote trying to define pornography “You’ll know one, when you see one.”

Real farms can’t compete with this kind of scale, because this model focuses solely on lowering costs. Food has been commoditized, so there’s no differentiation between producers, thus no incentive towards best practices. With no premium available, it’s a race to be the lowest cost producer, with regulatory oversight regarded as a boundary more than a deterrent. It’s a system without regard for the animals it raises, the environment it operates in, the people it employs, or the consumers it feeds. It simply pursues profits, scale, and market share, while dancing with regulations. A pursuit of ruthless efficiency, short sighted profits, socialized medical and environmental costs, and mindboggling scale. To understand how big, big is, let’s look at this recent egg recall a little bit closer.

Let’s take a moment to drill down into that headline. 207 million eggs were recalled from a “farm” in North Carolina for fears that they may have been contaminated with salmonella. That sounds like a lot of eggs, but when you take a closer look that’s A LOT of eggs. 207 million (nope, not going to do the whole brevity thing, let’s look at all these zeroes) … 207,000,000 eggs make 17,250,000 dozen of eggs. The average carton of a dozen eggs measures 11 inches. If we laid (pun intended) all those dozens end to end they would stretch for 15,812,500 feet or 2,994.8 miles. That’s from New York City to Los Angeles with 202 miles left over for good measure. Take that in for a second. You could take the eggs from this one recall, from this one “farm”, and lay dozens end to end and walk across America on them. A Transcontinental omelet walk, where if you had amazing balance your feet would never touch the ground.

This particular farm, for this particular recall, is the beautifully named Rose Acre Farms. The first thing I saw when I landed on their website was nine immaculate brown laying hens perched together on a roost with the line “Our small-town, family-owned values of service and quality never waver” written underneath them. To give you an idea as to the scale of the recall it would take those nine hens about 63,013 years and 8 months to lay 207 million eggs. But the point of this article isn’t to pile on Rose Acre, or single them out. This particular farm, and this particular recall isn’t important, they’re just the latest in the inevitable periodic results of a global lowest cost system of production. Today it’s eggs, tomorrow it’s romaine, the next day something else will make you sick.

The entire food industry uses purposely deceptive, idyllic names and peaceful imagery to hide reality. They have to. Who would buy food from a place called “Even we can’t believe how many animals we crammed in here farm” followed by actual pictures? We, the eaters of America have allowed ourselves to become collateral damage in a war of scale. We’ve embraced dietary illness as inevitable. We’ve abdicated our right to good food, produced in harmony with, not at the expense of nature, by farmers who in turn can make a living, all for really, really, cheap and abundant junk. We’ve become complacent even with large recalls, and that’s the equivalent of being ok with losing a few of our fellow citizens to friendly fire, as long as grocery prices remain low. There is an inherent difference between a farm and a factory. A farm depends on environmental inputs and strives for balance. A factory strives for environmental independence and depends on consistency. Factories are great at producing inanimate objects, but not at producing life. The fruits and vegetables, the animals and animal products we consume are living things, as are we. Demand to know the how, where, and who raised the food you’re eating. Transparency is the trail of bread crumbs that will lead you out of this dark forest.