Do You Want Mass-Produced Food?

As a special treat, we’re giving you a sneak peak at a feature from our upcoming January/February issue of the Washington Monthly magazine. The remainder of the articles should be available to you on Monday morning, and we have a lot of good stuff so stay tuned. Our policy editor Anne Kim’s piece looks at how the massive consolidation in the food industry over the last few decades has had the unfortunate side effect of greatly increasingly our vulnerability to multistate outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

Here’s a shocking set of statistics from her article:

In 1969, according to a study by a group of CDC researchers led by Jeremy Sobel, the nation’s eggs were produced by 470,832 layer-hen farms with an average of 632 hens per farm. By 1992, the number of farms had dropped by 85 percent, while the average number of hens per farm increased by 470 percent, to nearly 3,000 hens per flock. Today, according to the American Egg Board, approximately sixty-three companies—each with flocks of one million hens or more—produce roughly 86 percent of the nation’s eggs. Seventeen of these companies, says the American Egg Board, have flocks of five million hens or more.

I looked at those stats for a long time, just trying to soak in their full meaning. I’ve rarely seen such staggering numbers related to something as familiar as going to the store and buying a dozen eggs. I was particularly amazed at the change just since 1992. We’ve gone from farms with 3,000-hen flocks (which was already a 470% increase over 1969) to farms will one million or five million-hen flocks.

Basically the same thing has happened with our pork and beef supply, and you probably don’t even want to talk about bagged lettuce.

Sick leaves: The Nunes Company, which owns the Foxy brand, voluntarily recalled 8,500 crates of its lettuce after water samples tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

Is it any wonder that we’re more susceptible to food-borne illnesses or that these flocks and herds need huge amounts of antibiotics to protect them?

You’ll definitely want to read the whole thing to find out how to protect yourself and to get some ideas on how we can do a better job of both protecting the food supply and producing the food we need.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at