A Pantego, North Carolina, shell egg production facility linked to a large salmonella illness outbreak has had a rodent infestation for some time, according to an inspection report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA said that inspectors found unsanitary conditions that allowed pathogens to survive and spread in poultry houses owned by Rose Acre Farms of Seymour, Indiana.
On April 13, the family-owned company recalled more than 2 million eggs following reports of 20 illnesses. To date, the outbreak has sickened 23 people in nine states and hospitalized six, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. The eggs were widely distributed and sold under eight different brands at Walmart, Food Lion and other stores, FDA said.
A spokesman for Rose Acre Farms, the second-largest egg producer in the country, said the inspectors based their report "on raw observations and in some cases lack proper context," according to The Wall Street Journal. He indicated the company would make a formal response to the FDA and suggested that members of the public wait until all the facts are presented.
Although it's not clear what type of housing system its North Carolina facility has, Rose Acre has been at the forefront of switching from inline cages to cage-free housing for its laying hens. To meet increasing consumer demand for cage-free eggs, Rose Acre and Cal-Maine Foods, another large shell egg producer, partnered on a cage-free facility in 2015 in Texas capable of housing between 1.8 and 2.9 million hens.
Rose Acre has said that it plans to add more cage-free laying hens to its operations than any other U.S. egg producer by the end of this year. To help further this goal, the company has worked with Purdue University on a new layer house design featuring better ventilation and more social interaction for hens.
Companies earn a premium price for cage-free eggs — sometimes twice as much — but they're also more expensive to produce. Industry officials say the cost can run about $40 more per bird. And even though many consumers prefer cage-free eggs for the taste and other reasons, it's unknown whether they will continue to pay more for the product — at least for long enough to make the investment worthwhile.
If cage-free egg producers hope to keep their premium prices and their brand loyalty, they need to make sure their facilities are the cleanest possible and that FDA inspections underscore more stringent food safety processes. A lot of revenue could be at stake if retailers and consumers can't trust the quality of the product, whether from cage-free hens or not.
So far, which housing system is easier to keep clean and contamination-free remains to be seen. However, 2016 animal husbandry guidelines from United Egg Producers stated that bird movement and litter in cage-free systems can mean higher concentrations of bacteria, fungi, internal and external parasites, noxious gases and dust when compared to cage systems.
Companies transitioning to cage-free housing may need to pay closer attention to cleanliness, health and overall food safety procedures if they want to keep consumer trust in their products. They also need to explain why they have made the transition and why cage-free eggs are superior to those from caged hens. The extra effort may cut into their profits, but it's likely to be worth the investment in the long run.