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Egg on Their Faces: Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Meat&Poultry magazine reported “AIB International on Sept. 23 issued a statement saying that while it conducted its GMP inspection in three of six in-shell egg grading/sorting facilities owned by Wright County Egg Co., Clarion, Iowa, it was not contracted to and did not inspect the other areas of the company’s operations, including the feed milling operation, feed handling operation, hen laying barns or egg breaking facilities. The latter operations are the focus of both Food and Drug Administration and congressional hearings following a Salmonella enteriditis outbreak in August.”

The AIB inspections took place between 2007 and 2010.  It’s important to note that AIB had also inspected Peanut Corporation of America, the morally and fiscally bankrupt corporate outlaws that repeatedly shipped Salmonella-infected peanuts, peanut butter, peanut meal, and peanut paste to institutional users such as schools and nursing homes, and to food processors in 2008 and 2009.  Concerns about sanitary conditions in that plant had been expressed by some of their customers and others for about 20 years before the ax finally fell.

About Wright County Egg, AIB said, “Inspection results over this period in the three grading/sorting operations include observations that range from unsatisfactory, serious, needs improvement, to minor issues in the area of personnel practices, maintenance, and integrated pest management,” adding that internal reviews of inspection reports established that Wright County met the requirements of the AIB International 2008 Consolidated Standards for Inspection.

As part of the inspection, the AIB said its auditor queried the Wright County Egg operators about the environmental microbiology and finished product tests and confirmed that they were compliant with current U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.

USDA and FDA inspectors also passed through Wright County Egg from time to time and, after several years of urging WCE management to do the right thing, the FDA finally reported finding about “eight frogs living under one egg-laying house, wild birds flying inside houses, pigeons roosting in an air vent, unsealed holes appearing to be rodent burrows, live mice, ‘live and dead flies too numerous to count’ and ‘live and dead maggots too numerous to count.’ Live flies were on and around egg belts, feed, shell eggs and walkways. Live and dead maggots were observed in a manure pit.”

Four to eight feet of chicken manure below egg-laying operations was observed in some locations.

Manure up to eight feet deep?  The ammonia had to be way above OSHA standards.  Were employees adequately protected with filtered breathing equipment?  Probably not.

OK, let’s total up the damage here and figure out which organization has the most egg on its face.

1.    AIB, probably the premier organization when it comes to sanitation and food safety, was in and out of Wright County Egg and, despite some concerns, gave WCE a passing grade.

2.    USDA was also in the neighborhood and despite some concerns, gave WCE a passing grade.

3.    FDA slapped WCE’s corporate hand a few times but allowed it to continue to operate.

4.    WCE has a lengthy rap sheet of all kinds of corporate offenses, courtesy of many state and local officials, none of whom were willing to blow the whistle.

Doesn’t it sound like everyone involved in this mess spent years doing their best imitation of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes?   “I see NOTHING!

It was only after the Salmonella issue got way out of hand and an unknown but certainly large number of people were sickened that the FDA played its trump card.  With hat in hand the agency went to the head of WCE and said, “Please Mr. DeCoster, sir, would you consent to recall a little over half a billion eggs?  We think a few of them might be killing people.”

You have to understand this: The FDA does not have the authority to demand a recall, no matter how grievous the threat might be.  Neither does the USDA.  They can only make a request; the company in question doesn’t have to comply.  The USDA can exercise its option of pulling its inspector, though, which can effectively shut down a plant’s operations.

Of course, a facility has to be inspected first, to know that something is amiss.  Last year, the Office of the Inspector General reported that over half the facilities registered with the FDA haven’t been inspected in at least five years.

The food safety bill that’s currently being held captive by one lone Senator who would rather play politics than save lives will give the USDA and FDA more of the tools they need to do their jobs.  With its passage, the extra dollars will help staff the two organizations with more people so they have a better chance of catching the PCAs and WCEs of America’s food processors before they do damage.  And we will once again make truthful this hackneyed old phrase: “In America, we enjoy the world’s safest food supply.”

Bottom line: Senator Tom Coburn’s adamant refusal to allow the food safety bill to go to a vote or even to work with the majority of the Senate to reach a compromise is one of the most venal political maneuvers in decades.  He’s putting his “just say no” attitude in the way of a bill that can help significantly reduce illnesses and deaths caused by foodborne pathogens.  The health and lives of thousands of people are being held captive by the bad gentleman from Oklahoma.

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