The following is a guest post by  Bonnie Azab Powell, co-founder of the food-politics blog The Ethicurean who started the Bay Area's first Community-Supported Agriculture program for meat, BAMCSA, in 2006. She now manages the CSA programs for Clark Summit and Soul Food farms. She eats two runny eggs nearly every day. The opinions expressed are her own.

Reading about the recall of 550 million possibly salmonella-tainted U.S. eggs, laid and packed in just a handful of massive Iowa factories made me think about the egg aisle of a Sainsbury's supermarket I visited in England, near Brighton, two years ago.

I was so struck by the store signage, which read not only Organic and Free Range - familiar terms - but also Barn and Caged, that I took several pictures with my iPhone. My English host practically had to drag me away from reading all the explanatory text included on the cartons: barn eggs are laid by hens free to nest, perch, and roam in spacious barns, while Woodland organic free-range eggs are from hens free to roam in a natural environment with trees.

Not only are the cartons informatively labeled, each egg is stamped with a simple code that tells what kind of system produced it.

It sounded so ... pleasant. I didn't see how anyone with a heart could pass over these visions of happy nesting, perching, tree-scratching chickens - despite being more expensive - for the grim from caged hens. And yet as I watched, plenty of shoppers opted to save the pound or more per dozen.

In Europe, the philosophy is Buyer Be Aware. But in the U.S., it's Buyer Beware. American food labels have loads of nutritional information, but little that you can trust to tell you how it was produced.

Looking out for the little chicks

In line with its more protective attitude toward consumers, Europe requires any genetically modified food ingredients to be identified as such. Egg operations over a certain size are required to vaccinate their flocks for salmonella unless they can demonstrate that they have strict preventive measures in place or that there hasn't been an incidence of salmonella on the property in the previous year. As a result, salmonella infections in England have dropped a stunning 96 percent since 1997.

And the European Food Safety Authority has strongly discouraged the use of antimicrobials for controlling salmonella because of the risk of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria. Governments in Europe have much more power to enforce food safety testing and to shut down infected farms.

Whereas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has only recently acknowledged that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals - which promotes growth - might be causing antibiotic-resistant bugs.

Here in America we even don't have mandatory recalls. We let the industry conduct its own testing for pathogens, and when it is nice enough to tell the FDA it's found some, we let the company recall months-old tainted products on its own schedule. We also let a habitual violator, as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources called Wright County Egg owner Jack Decoster for his hog-waste handling, keep on making food for millions of Americans. The most punishment he's received so far has been being fined for animal and worker abuse.

The FDA has new egg industry safety standards that go into effect in September that supposedly could have nipped this salmonella outbreak in the bud. But the standards will still rely on the DeCosters of the world to test their own henhouses. There is a new food-safety bill that the House passed in July 2009 that would give the FDA recall authority as well as make certain inspections mandatory, but the Senate is still sitting on it.



Beyond the labels

When I went back to the same Sainsbury's six months later, the caged eggs were gone. The chain had kicked them out. The move may have had something to do with two TV exposés of the poultry industry by the U.K. food celebrities Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But it was still two years ahead of the European Union's mandatory phase-out of battery cages by 2012.

That's right. In two years, all European chickens are supposed to be free, free, free!

But the reality behind that pleasant-sounding egg labels turns out to be a little less rosy. Enriched cages, which offer nest boxes, litter, perches and only slightly more space per bird are still stacked several levels high and will still be allowed. And those barn eggs come from hens that roam in a seething mass of thousands on the dirt floor of a huge shed.

At least free range European hens have continuous access to open-air runs, which regulations say have to be mainly covered by vegetation, and are allotted a minimum of 4 square meters each. In America, there is no binding definition for the term, and many producers use it to describe operations that are more like the English barn kind.

The sad fact is that industrial farming is the norm in both Europe and America, and that whenever you have thousands of animals crowded together inside - whether barn egg layers in England or chickens at big organic operations in Northern California - you're going to increase the risk of pathogens like salmonella.

As the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center website says, Salmonella bacteria survive well in wet environments shielded from sunlight ... under low oxygen tension, such as that found in manure slurry pits ... [but they're] destroyed by the drying effects of wind, by the bactericidal effect of UV irradiation from the sun.

Experts can debate all they want about whether truly free-range or pastured small farms with their natural sun and wind disinfectants are safer than chicken über-sweatshops like DeCoster's. Faced with a choice on a supermarket shelf of caged or a meaningful free range label, more Americans just might opt for the latter.

And if they don't? Well, caveat emptor.