How One Politician Nearly Broke the British Egg Industry
Talk about walking on eggshells
On December 3, 1988, Edwina Currie, a British politician, stood in front of reporters and television cameras on a mild December morning and delivered a death sentence to the egg industry. “Most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella,” she announced in an official statement to the waiting journalists and TV crew. Elaboration would have clarified that only the flocks had been “mostly” infected, not necessarily their eggs—and the fact that, once properly cooked, all eggs were perfectly safe to eat. But the damage was done. At a time when over 30 million eggs were being consumed every day in the UK, people thought their breakfast plates were sources of disease. Britain’s 5,000 poultry farmers and their workers watched as egg sales plummeted by 50 percent overnight. Within two weeks, over 350 million eggs had gathered unsold on supermarket shelves. Fear gripped the horrified consumer, for whom eggs were a staple. Fury bubbled up in the suddenly crippled egg industry, whose welfare was on the line.
Currie was a key member of the Conservative Party, the dominant political group in the UK at the time. She was assigned the role of Junior Health Minister in 1986, a position that she held safely for two years after a background of working her way up through City Council positions. As a minister of the Department of Health in the government of Margaret Thatcher (the UK’s first female Prime Minister), it was her job to promote and protect public health and welfare. Fourteen days after making the statement, Edwina was forced to resign.
Edwina had a reputation for being outspoken, and stoking the outrage of the British nation. One political correspondent for the BBC described Currie as a “virtually permanent fixture on the nation’s TV screen” thanks to her penchant for a divisive soundbite. In the UK, she was perhaps most famous for her four-year extramarital affair with the soon-to-be Prime Minister, John Major, that was secretly simmering all the while egg-gate was afoot. At the height of the AIDs epidemic in the 1987, she declared that “Good Christian people who would not dream of misbehaving will not catch AIDS.” 13 years later, she stated that she had always found “religious mumbo jumbo hard to swallow.” Ruffling feathers seemed to be Edwina’s forte, and the fallout of her widely-publicised salmonella statement proved to be something of a magnum opus.
As egg sales plunged in the weeks before Christmas 1988, anger within the egg industry heated to boiling point. Egg producers were furious and the British Egg Industry Council announced it was seeking legal action with the intention of suing Currie for "factually incorrect and highly irresponsible” remarks. Even her fellow party members called for her to re-address the statement, while the general public boycotted eggs that they wholly believed to be carrying salmonella, a bacterial infection which, in the very young and elderly, can be fatal.
Years later, Currie matter-of-factly described the damning day in a video segment for a consumer goods publication, The Grocer. “I went public and I warned everybody… one memorable Saturday night. Ten million people heard it and it wasn’t edited and I got my message across Now, I never said, ‘don’t eat eggs.’ The scientific information was they were fine if you cook them.”
But what were the facts? In 1981, just over 10,000 cases of the potentially deadly Salmonella Enteriditis had been reported in the UK, 1,000 of which could be directly linked to egg consumption. A hush-hush study entitled ‘the Whitehall Report’ would later describe the period as “a salmonella epidemic of considerable proportions”, and many an eyebrow was raised when the report was eventually uncovered years later. Had Edwina seen something that no one else spotted? When held up to more modern records the numbers seem by no means extraordinary. In 1997, the UK saw a peak of nearly 33,000 cases reported, later dropping to just over 16,000 cases in 2001.
“Her remarks were the cause of the collapse in the egg market,” commented an unnamed Conservative MP to The Sunday Times at the height of the furor. “Everybody knows that salmonella has existed in poultry for years. There has been a slight increase in the numbers of cases, but no dramatic effect on the market.
“The man in the street thought that most eggs had salmonella. There was no effort to correct this and she created panic.”
Another MP claims he confronted her about the impending bankruptcy facing poultry farmers, to which she reportedly told him, “That’s the industry’s problem, not mine.” Poultry farmers disagreed: One farmer, a Mr Kirkwood working in the north of England, described the extent of his anguish to The Sunday Times after culling 10,000 of his 70,000 chickens to cope with the egg glut. “That bloody woman’s a liability,” he determined. His loss was a pittance compared to the net of chickens culled—approximately four million healthy hens in total. An array of MPs began to speak up, describing her move as “rash,” “reckless and uninformed” and “crass.” The pressure for Currie to leave her post became insurmountable.
A fortnight later, drowning in scrutiny from the industry and her peers, Currie tendered her resignation.
London restaurants gleefully announced on chalkboards that dish of the day was “Edwina Curry.” Industrial groups of Northern Ireland, an area hit particularly hard by the unofficial egg boycott, reportedly served curried egg at their Christmas parties. In households across Britain, she became known as ‘Eggwina.’ Perhaps, for some, if you couldn’t laugh, you’d cry.
“Do I have any regrets? No I don’t,” Edwina states vehemently at one point in her monologue for The Grocer, before taking credit for modern day egg safety regulations. “[Egg producers now] have a testing regime which I think is second to none. I’m quite proud of my little part in making sure that happened.”
Her “little part” is a handful of 'British Lion Quality' campaigns she was brought on board to help promote; some of the many marketing campaigns that millions were poured into to undo the damage. Her first stint was in 2004 when the Food Standards Agency announced a monumental drop in salmonella contamination, and as late as in 2015 Edwina can still be seen clowning about for the cameras with stamp-approved eggs. For modern day Brits, the red lion stamped onto eggshells is now so commonplace it may as well be invisible, but the mark is a promise that each individual egg has come from a chicken that has been completely immunized against Salmonella Enteritidis.
Whether Currie can really assume responsibility for a modern safety practice is debatable. But from a PR perspective, who better to make the public sit up and take notice of a new egg industry campaign than the woman who nearly killed it off? Edwina bowed out of politics, and the limelight led her to a career as a minor star, authoring saucy novels with names like “A Woman’s Place” and “Chasing Men” and appearing on reality shows such as "I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!"
Now, in the UK, Edwina Currie needs no introduction, and needs no seat in government to be heard. A long biography on her website sweeps the scandal into simple parentheses: “She resigned over food safety (salmonella)”.