If anyone stands to benefit from the most sweeping egg recall in America's history, it is the chickens.
Animal-welfare advocates waging an ongoing war to free caged birds have seized on the U.S. recall of half a billion eggs over fears of salmonella contamination as evidence that common industrial egg-producing systems are not only inhumane, they pose a real threat to food safety.
"Confining birds to cages means increased salmonella infection in the birds, their eggs and the consumers of caged eggs," the Humane Society of the United States wrote in a letter to egg farmers in Iowa, where the recalled eggs were produced. Their allegation comes as rights advocates appear to be gaining ground on factory farmers in the United States.
Earlier this month they successfully pressured egg farmers in Ohio, the second largest egg-producing state, to agree to a ban on the construction of new egg farms that pack birds into cages. Concessions based on welfare concerns have also been brokered with producers in Michigan and California, which will ban small chicken cages in 2015 as well as the sale of cage-produced eggs from out of state.
Canadian egg producers have smaller production systems than their U.S. counterparts and say they have thus far not been affected by the activists' south-of-the-border success.
Still, it is unclear whether employing the food-safety argument will increase the lobby's momentum.
Government and academic experts remain skeptical of the link between caged facilities and elevated risk for salmonella contamination; a white paper produced by some of the world's top egg experts that is slated for publication in the journal Poultry Science says more research is necessary to determine whether a hen-housing system can affect the quality and safety of eggs.
"These individuals are the best and the brightest with regards to egg-safety research," said Jeffrey D. Armstrong, dean of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University. "They say there is not convincing evidence. Anyone who says that the evidence is clear, they're just not reading the literature," he said.
Studies in the European Union, which will bar small cages for egg hens as of 2012, have revealed slightly higher levels of salmonella in conventional cage systems than in cage-free facilities. But U.S. results show an opposite trend.
"We really don't know if there is a difference," Dr. Armstrong said. "A big system that is managed poorly is a big problem. Does that mean a big system is inherently bad? No. The data doesn't support that."
While a team of more than 20 U.S. food-and-drug investigators is still working to determine what caused the contamination, revelations related to poor management practices at Iowa's Wright County Egg (responsible for 380 million of the eggs recalled since Aug. 13) and Hillendale Farms (responsible for 170 million recalled eggs) have already drawn the ire of top federal officials, who have begun focusing on whether feed contaminated by rodent droppings might be responsible for the outbreak.
"There is no question that these farms that are involved in the recall were not operating with the standards of practice that we consider responsible," Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in a television interview this week.
Tom Hauschild, the national manager of dairy, eggs and honey for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said U.S. officials have assured him that none of the suspect eggs were exported to Canada. It is not known how many Americans have been sickened by the contaminated batches of eggs; investigations continue in at least 15 states and the federal Center for Disease Control has recorded a nearly threefold increase in reports of salmonella illnesses since May 1. The bacteria, which can be eliminated from infected eggs via pasteurization or thorough cooking, can cause fever, abdominal cramps and severe diarrhea.
Laurent Souligny, an egg farmer from eastern Ontario who is president of the industry group Egg Farmers of Canada, said most reputable egg producers frequently test barn surfaces, production lines and even boots of barn workers to ensure they are salmonella-free. While salmonella is commonly found in dust, it is rare, Mr. Souligny said, to find it inside eggs. (The bacteria can be transmitted to eggs from hens with infected reproductive systems.)
"The cleanliness of the barn is number one," he said, "regardless of whether the birds are [free]on the floor or in the cage."