To the American agrarian poet and philosopher Wendell Berry, “eating is an agricultural act”. It’s a wonderful sentiment: when you choose what to eat, you’re also investing in how that crop is grown or how that animal is reared and slaughtered.
These sentiments provide the bedrock for the sustainable food movement, with its emphasis on short, transparent supply chains with integrity. In practice, getting behind this type of profound agrarian communion and joining the dots between soil and salad, or farm and fork, seems impossible. Still, the idea gives us something to chew on as the next existential food crisis rolls into town – this time, eggs contaminated with a toxic insecticide, fipronil. This latest scandal serves to illustrate how little control and say we have over our agricultural system.
Surely we can do better than this? When it comes to straightforward supply chain, eggs should be easy and yet the supply chain has been revealed to be fundamentally chaotic. Along the way, the humble egg became a cypher for a globalised food system where the opportunity for spectacular disaster is never far away.
The only silver lining of a food crisis is that, as consumers, we get a little bit more information, albeit disturbing. This one exposes egg production centred in the Netherlands (global leaders in egg exports), where 40,000 to 50,000 birds per farm seem to have been treated by cleaning contractors with a delousing chemical that allegedly contained the offending pesticide. The more densely chickens are packed, the more susceptible they are to lice and fleas, which explains the delousing.
We’re being told not to worry because levels of concentrations of fipronil per egg are not concerning to some toxicologists. But that doesn’t address the cumulative impact of eating many eggs or the fact that affected eggs that could have been in the supply chain for a number of months have made their way into processed products, most obviously cakes and pasta. Other helpful consumer advice involves checking the serial numbers of eggs against a list of potentially affected farms produced by German authorities. In truth, most attention to soothe and reassure will be directed at the German consumer, considered a big spender and a very tricky customer. In the UK, we seem to be regarded as shoppers who will take what we’re given. In the aftermath of a food crisis, the British shopper gets fobbed off with platitudes.
The usual strategy of buying organic to sidestep the panic won’t necessarily work this time, either. Fipronil has been found in some organic eggs. Every time I see a little bit more of the global food industry exposed it pushes me one step closer to veganism.
In time, some of this will be pieced together and blame will be apportioned – the culprits in the horsemeat scandal have only just been sentenced, some four years after the original crisis. But the wider culprit – the issue of cheap food and a pressured supply chain, with inadequate checks and balances – will not shoulder any of the responsibility. The whole model of egg and poultry production in Europe is about getting more eggs per bird for lower cost, dictated by the global market. The sustainability of that proposition and the cost in terms of public, animal and planetary welfare are rarely mentioned.
The push towards a US model, where corporations keep millions, rather than thousands of birds, in one unit, must be resisted. Egg recalls in the US are not that uncommon and producers are encouraged to take out insurance policies rather than redesign the system in favour of sustainability. Cost is everything. To shore up this level of production, so-called Ag Gag laws have been introduced (preventing NGOs from filming or talking about large-scale facilities). This latest homegrown egg scandal in Europe needs to serve as a reminder that that direction spells greater disaster.