Last week, Nicholas D. Kristof offered his opinion in the New York Times about the salmonella outbreak in eggs. To his credit, Mr. Kristof grew up on a farm, so he knows a little about the subject matter. Unfortunately, he resorts to the same activist scare tactics that keep turning up in the discussion.
Mr. Kristof talks about a couple occasions from his youth when one poor hen almost got carried off once by a fox—and another time by a relative’s pet dog. He jokes that the hen probably would have gladly chosen modern, conventional housing over wandering freely in the barnyard.
However, he actually provides legitimate evidence for modern hen housing. One of the reasons hens are kept indoors, in cages, is to keep them from predators which can introduce pathogens into the food chain. They’re fed regulated meal so that they don’t eat anything that’s going to make them sick, like they might in an open yard.
The recent salmonella outbreak stems from contaminated feed, that’s a given; but there are checks that weren’t followed that allowed that feed into the birds’ diets. In other words, it had nothing to do with their housing.
Mr. Kristof also asserts that “repeated studies” show conventional housing “results in more eggs with salmonella” than cage-free. However, experts from the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security conclude “both conventional and free-range/cage-free egg producers must be diligent to protect their eggs from contamination. Neither method of egg farming appears to offer the silver bullet for egg food safety.” Further, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service notes it “has no information supporting the claim that chickens labeled ‘Kosher,’ ‘free-range,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘natural’ have more or less salmonella bacteria than other poultry.”
Mr. Kristof also talks about shearing off hens’ beaks so they won’t peck each other to death, and how farmers “encourage them to be cannibals” by sometimes feeding them spent hen meal. Since he grew up on a farm, he should know that sometimes hens naturally peck each other (hence the term “pecking order”) and cannibalize smaller, weaker birds. Conventional housing prevents both of those harmful behaviors.
Finally, Mr. Kristof says “industrial agriculture” gives animals low doses of antibiotics “because growers think these help animals gain weight.” The fact is, whatever kind of animal, from calf to chick to child, antibiotics help maintain and improve health. And that improved health is what enables the animal to grow. He also says antibiotics in animals “can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.” But, there is absolutely no proof of that statement, according to Colorado State University Professor Richard Raymond, M.D. He says, “there is no scientific evidence that an antibiotic free environment in food animals creates a safer or more wholesome product.” Michael Lacy, head of the University of Georgia Department of Poultry Science, agrees.
Mr. Kristof’s opinion is long on rhetoric, but short on facts, which is disappointing, considering his background.