IOWA FALLS, Iowa --- Iowa's poultry producers want consumers to know modern production methods aren't to blame for a massive egg recall last month.
Poultry experts say it doesn't matter if a farm has millions of birds in confinement buildings or dozens of free-range layers. Proper management is the key to producing safe eggs, officials said.
In early August, more than a half a billion eggs produced by Wright County Egg in Galt and Hillandale Farms in New Hampton were recalled after salmonella illnesses were linked to their products. About 1,500 people got sick, government health officials said.
An ongoing Food and Drug Administration investigation into the outbreak found numerous problems at Wright County and Hillandale facilities, which could be responsible for salmonella found in eggs. These include live rodents in laying houses, holes in buildings allowing wildlife access, flies "too numerous to count," seeping manure and escaped chickens tracking manure through houses, among other things.
Joe Scallon, owner of a 600,000-layer facility near Iowa Falls, said problems at Wright County and Hillandale aren't indicative of the industry. In the business for more than a decade, Scallon allowed The Courier to get an inside look Tuesday at how eggs are produced to ease consumer fears.
"I can't answer what happened at those two farms," Scallon said. "I know the rules and if you abide by them, that shouldn't happen.
"The American people should have a lot of faith in the FDA. Our track record is pretty good."
Scallon noted his eggs have never caused a health problem.
"In food production, you do everything you can to produce a quality product," he said.
Kevin Vinchattle, chief executive officer of the Iowa Poultry Association, hopes all egg farmers will use the recall to redouble food safety efforts, even if facilities haven't had a problem in the past.
"Iowa egg farmers need to analyze ... what lessons we need to learn. Consumer confidence is key and we want to earn this," Vinchattle said.
Iowa is the top egg producer in the nation. The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture production figures show the state has 54.8 million layers in July, which produced 1.24 billion eggs. That's more than double the next two top producing states combined, in both categories. Nationally, 7.69 billion eggs were produced in July.
A report by Iowa State University Extension in 2008 said less than 2,000 farms in Iowa produce eggs, and the large majority had less than 100 layers that aren't confined in cages.
Most eggs today are produced by facilities with hundreds of thousands or millions of birds in cages. Feeding chickens and gathering eggs by hand, for the most part, gave way to automated systems in confinement buildings. Producers say the switch was needed to make a profit.
Some animal rights groups used the recall to criticize how the industry has changed.
"The industrial model of agriculture which crams large numbers of livestock and their waste together into confined buildings and concentrates control of our food supply into the hands of a few corporations not only causes serious air and water pollution but also threatens our food safety," Jim Yungclas, an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement board member, said in a statement. "This is more proof that lawmakers and regulators need to bust up big ag and crack down on factory farms and the danger they pose to our way of life."
Dr. Darrell W. Trampel, ISU Extension poultry veterinarian, said there's no scientific evidence proving large egg facilities are more apt to have problems with salmonella than small producers, or even people with backyard flocks.
In fact, Trampel said large egg producers have a advantage when it comes to food safety. He said they can afford to vaccinate flocks and the cage system quickly separates birds and eggs from excrement.
"Chicken droppings fall away on a belt. Typically, that's how salmonella spreads," Trampel said. "I know people don't like to think this, but there are advantages to large cage operations."
Scallon considers his operation small compared to most, but modern. Called Ham and Eggs - he sold his pork operation in July - Scallon sells 12.4 million dozen a year, primarily to the breaker market. That means his eggs are used to make bread, cake mix and other processed food. Some are sold to other egg producers and egg brokers, and end up in grocery stores.
Ham and Eggs consists of six climate-controlled, interconnected buildings, a feed mill and egg packaging facility.
Each building holds 100,000 hens housed in cages stacked three high. There are six to 10 birds per cage, depending on the size. Each animal has 52 square inches of space, which Scallon said is typical.
Computers control the climate and huge exhaust fans and heaters. Automatic waters and feeders give birds all they want to eat and drink. Cage floors are gently sloped, so eggs roll to a conveyer belt and are whisked away to the packing facility. Conveyer belts also remove animal waste, which is trucked to an off-site holding facility for better sanitation.
Scallon said employees check cages every day to remove dead birds. Building maintenance is a high priority to keep unwanted animals out like wild birds. Scallon also has a contract with a pest-control company to control rodents.
"Removing the manure is big," Scallon said. "We don't have an issue with flies."
All birds are vaccinated for salmonella, Scallon said, along with on-site salmonella tests. Vaccinations alone cost $36,000 a year.
"I consider that insurance that I'm selling the best eggs I can sell," Scallon said. "Consumers should buy with a great deal of confidence."
Apparently, people are getting the message.
Local grocery retailers say egg sales are currently at pre-recall levels.
Andrew Robeson, manager of store operations at the Crossroads Hy-Vee, said sales didn't dip at all. They carried eggs from Sparboe Farms, which weren't subject to the recall.
At Family Foods in Grundy Center, manager Mark Dunnick said sales retreated initially after the recall but recently have rebounded to 500 dozen a week. Family Foods also carried Sparboe eggs.
Both stores put up signs explaining the recall, and employees answered customer questions.
"We're back to normal," Dunnick said. "We got a lot of signs out, which seem to calm people down."