This is in response to Nicholas D. Kristof's column ("Cleaning the henhouse," Friday)

Kristof's subject is the salmonella enteritidis outbreak on several Iowa egg farms. Let me state up front that I am deeply disappointed in this occurrence and, in the name of my industry, I apologize to the public for its happening.

For background, I am a fourth-generation farmer operating in Sonoma County and have been doing so all of my life — some 68 years. From the time I was a very small boy, I knew that I wanted to be a farmer, and I thank God that he has allowed me to do so.

I have several partners, and collectively we bring well over 350 years of experience to the table. We, and our families before us, have been producing eggs in Sonoma County on a continuous basis for more than 100 years without missing a day.

From practical experience, practical and applied science and hands-on application, you won't find a more well-versed group of individuals in the egg production business today.

In the first 50 years that we produced eggs, it was all done in a cage-free environment. Today, we have approximately 85 percent of our hens in a cage environment and the other 15 percent in a cage-free environment. We started going back to some cage-free production approximately seven years ago in response to consumer demand, starting with about 2 percent and getting up to 15 percent over a seven-year timeline.

For the last two years, cage-free demand has actually declined as a result of the current economy. People are looking to stretch their dollars as far as they can.

The risk of salmonella enteritidis came to my attention in the late 1980s. There were some reported illnesses in California, and as such I felt it was important that we address the situation and find a resolution to the problem.

With the help of fellow California egg producers and those in the public safety arena, a task force was formed, chaired by then-California Secretary of Agriculture Anne Venneman and myself. Through Venneman's efforts, we were able to incorporate for the first time in the history of the United States a "Farm to Table" food-safety program that brought together federal, state, county and municipal agencies that oversaw the safety of fresh eggs from the farm to the consumer. The name of the program is the California Egg Quality Assurance Program, and it is extremely comprehensive, even much more so than the program the U.S. Food and Drug Administration initiated on July 9. For the last ten years, there has not been a single reported case of salmonella enteritidis traced back to eggs in California, a fact of which I am extremely proud.

Remember also that during this time, 99 percent of all eggs have been been produced by hens housed in cages, a fact I believe dispels the theory that cage-free-produced eggs are safer than caged production.

Let me go a step further to dispel other false statements and accusations that have been made about how we go about producing eggs in Sonoma County. More than 20 years ago, we hired a veterinarian to assist in being proactive about the health and welfare of our laying hens. Since that time we have not used a single antibiotic in our production practices, another fact of which we are proud. We did initiate a very stringent biosecurity program. Our concern is not so much that our hens will make humans ill, but just the reverse, that humans will make our hens ill.

As it relates to our feed rations, some years ago we made the decision to discontinue the feeding of animal by-products commonly referred to as meat and bone meal. There were several reasons for this decision but the predominant one being that we were concerned about possible salmonella contamination in the meat and bone as well as the inconsistency of the meat and bone meal product itself.

Since that time, we have been feeding our hens a 100 percent vegetable ration. As one might understand, all of these things come at a cost, but we consider it insurance in order that we do everything in our power to prevent what happened in Iowa from happening on our farms in Sonoma County.

<NO1>Lastly, let me address the cage free issue. In 2008 California voter overwhelmingly approve Prop. 2, the Farm Animal Cruelty Act. In simple layman's language, it states that egg producers like myself, allow their hens more space. I believe that I understand the language, and I accept the desire of the public. About 10 years ago a gentleman from Scotland by the name of Mike Appleby developed an egg production housing system called the "enriched colony system". Incidentally Mike Appleby was the former executive director of the Humane Society of the United States, a fact I ask you to keep in mind. The European Union spent $20 Million to study all egg production systems, the Laywel Study. It studied cage free, range free, battery cages and enriched colony systems. The final results stated that no one system was a "silver bullet" but that the enriched colony system seemed to address most of the hen's requirements from space, to health and welfare and it provided for a safer type of production for food safety, a fact that most animal activists want to deny. This new type of system is what California egg producers have decided should be the future for California. The system has been certified by the American Humane Association as being animal welfare friendly. However the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) opposes the system saying it is not animal welfare friendly. Remember Mike Appleby?

Incidentally HSUS just reached an agreement with egg producers in Ohio that says that Ohio producers can continue to use the production systems that they currently have and can actually continue to install the same systems in the future. This is the very same type of equipment that we are currently using in California that HSUS and you the voters have disallowed under Prop. 2.

I want you, the consumer, to know that my partners and I have been and will continue to provide you with the most healthy, wholesome, nutritious food humanly possible. We will also continue to provide for our hens welfare in the future as we have in the past.

<i>Arnie Riebli is a partner in Sunrise Farms/Nucal foods based in Petaluma, one of the largest egg producers in California.</i>