When is a Factory Farm Not a Factory Farm?

Factory farms are often vilified, with varying degrees of justification. But sometimes, it seems to me, the problem with factory farms is that they’re just not enough like real factories.

Let’s start with a report on the condition of one of the egg farms at the heart of the recent salmonella outbreak. Here’s the story, by William Neuman, writing for the NYT, Egg Farms Violated Safety Rules. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Barns infested with flies, maggots and scurrying rodents, and overflowing manure pits were among the widespread food safety problems that federal inspectors found at a group of Iowa egg farms at the heart of a nationwide recall and salmonella outbreak….

The problem, it seems to me, is that these ‘factory farms’ were not actually operating very much like a factory. Sure, they had the scale of a major manufacturing operation. But they were being run like, well, like many small farms are run — rather, errrr, informally. That’s not to say that farms in general are sloppy. But I grew up in a farming community, and I know that most barns are, well, they’re barns. There are flies. There’s manure. There’s pretty much always some animal or another that has escaped its pen or stall or cage, wandering around. There’s always some mess or another to be cleaned up, sooner (or more often) later. None of this is intended as an indictment of farms; far from it. It’s just to say that places where animals are born and raised, where they eat, poop, and eventually die, are unlikely to be scrupulously tidy. Add to that the fact that many farms (not the kind discussed in the NYT story) are small businesses, struggling to get by, run on a tight budget by someone who may or may not have the managerial and organizational skills to run a tight ship.

So there was a lot in the FDA’s description of the state of things at Wright County Egg that didn’t actually surprise me all that much, though the dangers implied by running a farm that way on that scale are pretty clear. To me, Wright County Egg sounds like a small, amateurish farm that happens to have been scaled up to enormous size, and with disastrous consequences.

Now compare the description of Wright County Egg to a modern factory — a place where things are manufactured. Imagine an auto factory (like the one pictured above) or a factory where toasters or computers are assembled. Compared to a farm, a factory is, in contrast, fairly tightly regimented and relatively clean. Of course, that’s a huge generalization. There are factories that use (and abuse) dangerous chemicals, and there are factories that are messy and dangerous and poorly-run. But a well-run factory is clean, tidy, and safe, because the goal of factories is efficiency, and dirt, mess, and danger are all sources of inefficiency. So it seems to me that at least part of the problem at the egg operations at the heart of the salmonella outbreak is that they were operating on the scale of a factory, achieving factory-level outputs, but without the attention to detail that lets good factory managers turn out high-quality products on a massive scale.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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2 Responses to When is a Factory Farm Not a Factory Farm?

  1. Pingback: Explanations and Excuses for Salmonella-Infected Eggs | The Food Ethics Blog

  2. Pingback: A Better Factory Farm? | The Food Ethics Blog

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