Authorities have fingered the likely source of the salmonella that tainted more than half a billion eggs: a feed mill run by Wright County Egg, a company owned by Jack DeCoster, one of the most reviled names in industrial agriculture and a “habitual violator” of Iowa’s water-quality laws.

Wright County Eggs’ mill provided feed not only to the company’s own vast operation, but also to that of nearby Hillandale Farm, the nation’s third-largest egg producer. Hillandale contributed some 140 million tainted eggs to the recall.

Who was responsible for monitoring sanitary conditions at the mill? According to the Associated Press, it was the Iowa Department of Agriculture — but the agency allowed the mill to operate unregulated because “it qualifies for an exemption allowing farmers to make feed for their own livestock.”

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Let’s ponder that for a second. Say you’re a farmer who wants to grow corn to feed a small herd of pastured hogs. In that case, it makes perfect sense that the state would let you do that without a lot of monitoring.

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But say you want to produce feed so you can stuff millions of chickens into dense buildings in order to produce millions of eggs per week, to be distributed nationwide. And you also want to sell feed to an even larger neighboring operation. In this case, the state’s failure to monitor your feed mill risks exposing millions of people to sickness.

In other words, the watchdog is a lapdog; the referee doubles as cheerleader.

Why would the Iowa Department of Agriculture accept Wright County Egg’s ludicrous claim to an an exemption intended for farmers, not factories? Add in DeCoster’s state-declared status as an “habitual offender” of environmental code, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture’s failure to regulate the feed mill is even more puzzling.

The video below, posted on YouTube seven months ago, may provide some insight. In it, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey earnestly praises his state’s egg industry for its vast size. “In fact, we have one farm that produces all the eggs for all the McDonalds east of the Mississippi, including Hawaii and Guam,” he gushes, adding something about egg McMuffins and breakfast burritos. In other words, the watchdog is a lapdog; the referee doubles as cheerleader.

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Perhaps given the massive recall, Secretary Northey will now see fit to have a look at DeCoster’s dodgy feed mill; maybe he’ll dig deep to root out other public-health crises that are waiting to be born amid the state’s gigantic livestock factories. And perhaps come November, Iowa’s voters will reconsider their decision to put an industry tool in charge of the state’s ag policy. Northey’s opponent in November, Francis Thicke, is running on an agenda based on local food, wind energy, and limits on factory-scale animal facilities.