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Letter the The Editor: Egg association leader weighs in on cage-free question

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Dear Editor,

Food Safety News is a daily “must read” for me in representing the National Association of Egg Farms in producing eggs in conventional caged systems nationwide. I appreciate the insights into numerous food safety issues. A recent Letter to the Editor has a cage-free egg farmer claiming cage-free egg production improves on the safety of shell eggs sold to the consuming public.

The frustration of this cage-free egg farmer is readily apparent, but it does not allow his generalizations about commercial farmers as the source of Salmonella. The farmer was criticizing the Food Safety News article on Salmonella coming from backyard poultry flocks. He failed to recognize the source of that information is the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Yet, the farmer criticizing Food Safety News in his claims that “Large commercial poultry operations that have always used antibiotics inappropriately are the source of salmonella contamination so widespread that the eggs are now laid with the bacteria inside from infected hens. These and other commercial livestock operations that fed low levels of antibiotics because it increased growth rates are also the source of the antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA that plague us today. This is the reason the government now requires a warning on egg packages that eggs should be “thoroughly cooked before eating.”

Permit me to set the record straight. Commercial egg farmers with 3,000 or more laying hens whose shell eggs are not processed with a treatment, such as pasteurization, have their farm inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials to ensure they have implemented an egg safety program to prevent Salmonella enteritidis. This regulation (21 CFR Parts 16 and 118) Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation was issued on July 9, 2009, and remains in force today. The regulation requires preventive measures during the production of eggs in poultry houses and requires subsequent refrigeration during storage and transportation.

As to the farmer’s claim that large commercial farms use antibiotics inappropriately, he should know that antibiotics provided egg-laying chickens are not given routinely, but only when the chickens become sick. Antibiotics are not used for growth promotion. The eggs cannot be sold when a flock is being administered with antibiotics until after a prescribed withdrawal period.

Other issues with cage-free egg production include the report from The U.S. Animal Health Association October 17, 2017, which stated: “Ascarids (round worms) are increasingly being found in cage-free operations with the concern being the possibility of a consumer finding an egg with a roundworm contained inside. Most all cage-free egg producers have had such an occurrence.” Chickens pick up roundworms when they come into contact with infected feces on the ground. The Journal Food Control published a study June 17, 2014, entitled “Microbiological Contamination of Shell Eggs Produced in Conventional and Free-Range Housing Systems.” The conclusions show why cages became the preferred method of producing safer eggs: “Battery caged hens (conventional cages) are standing on wire slats that allow feces to fall to a manure collection system beneath the hens. Conversely, free-range hens (cage-free) laid their eggs in nest boxes on shavings and the eggs remained in contact with hens, shavings and fecal material until they are collected. The longer contact time with free-range hens, shavings and feces would explain the higher enterobacteriaceae counts on free-range eggs as compared to battery caged eggs.”

Penn State researchers in September 2016 published their research findings that eggs from small flocks of chickens are more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis as eggs sold in grocery stores, which typically come from larger flocks of caged layers. 

Now consider the benefits of producing eggs from caged layers. Researchers at the Egg Industry Center in Ames, IA, found that today’s hens are living longer due to better health, better nutrition and better living environments. These researchers studied U.S. egg production over a 50-year period, from 1960 to 2010. Today’s egg farmers are producing more eggs in 2010 than 50 years earlier. Using 1960 technology to produce the 2010 egg supply would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans.

In comparison to 1960 technology, today’s commercial egg farmers are using conventional cages to be able to feed 72 percent more people.

Thank you.

— Ken Klippen, President
National Association of Egg Farmers

Editor’s note: We want to hear from our readers. Letters to the Editor can be submitted via the Contact Us link on our website.

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