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Cage-free eggs present food safety challenge in Missouri

A producer of so-called cage-free eggs, which had to suspend operations in December and then recall eggs  that were associated with Salmonella Enteritis illnesses in January, has now come in for a stern warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

And while one producer’s problems does not a trend make, the concerns FDA raises with the Good Earth Egg Co. in the recently released  Feb. 23 warning letter are among the significant food safety problems that do come up with “cage-free” eggs.

chicken_406x250In the warning letter, FDA paints grim picture of these cage-free eggs being raised in conditions “contaminated with fllth,” without environmental testing or biosecurity measures to control the spread of Salmonella Enteritis, with no cleaning or disinfection procedures or proper refrigeration.

That is just the quick outline of conditions at the Good Earth Egg Co. in Bon Terre, MO, a provider of cage-free eggs to the St. Louis metropolitan area. Owned by the third generation of the David Family in Bon Terre, Good Earth was ordered to close by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Dec. 18, 2015.

The reason for the closure was that Salmonella contamination was found inside the facility. The state ordered remediation efforts and re-sampling, but the company did not issue a recall.
But when Good Earth eggs were associated with Salmonella illnesses in Missouri in early January, it did issue a recall of eggs of various sizes and packaging. The recalled eggs all had sell-by dates of Feb. 5.

Cage-free is a misnomer as it does not mean laying hens are not confined. It means the confinement is a large enough space to allow the laying hens to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs without touching one another or the sides of the enclosure. When the term “free range” is used, hens are required to have access to the outdoors.

FDA says it found the violations at the Good Earth Egg Co. sufficient to consider its shell eggs to be adulterated within the meaning the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and they may have been “injurious to health.” The agency says Good Earth does not have a Salmonella Enteritis prevention plan as required by law.

Consequently, Good Earth has “temporarily ceased” shell egg operations, according to FDA, and it should not resume until it has an Salmonella Enteritis (SE) plan in place.

“Your firm failed to test your pullet environment for SE when pullets were 14-16 weeks of age as required (by law),” according to the FDA warning letter. Good Earth personnel in fact admitted they’d never done testing in the pullet house for SE.

Good Earth told FDA it’s SE plan would be developed by March 1.

Good-Earth-Eggs1-282x282FDA also found no biosecurity measures are practiced at Good Earth. Customers were seen driving their own vehicles into the facility to purchase eggs and people were moving freely between poultry houses. Nothing was being done to prevent cross contamination as equipment was moved between poultry houses.

No attention was being give to rodents in the egg laying houses. There were also numerous openings that allow pests to enter laying houses. Rodent burrows and feed spillage were observerd along with “debris within a poultry house and vegetation and debris outside a poultry house that may provide harborage for pests.”

“Rodent excreta pellets” and flies were also not being cleaned up or brought under control.

Further, FDA questions whether Susan David is qualified to be the Salmonella Enteritis plan supervisor, in part because she does not “oversee or participate in daily egg production.” In addition there is no record or documentation that laying houses are cleaned and disinfected between flocks.

Salmonella Enteritis is not the only concern for the cage-free Missouri egg farm. “We are concerned about the presence of Salmonella Oranienberg (SO) in your poultry house environment” FDA said. Environmental sampling in to laying houses found the presence of SO.

“Although FDA’s Shell Egg Rule pertains to the prevention of SE, FDA considers SO in a poultry house environment to be a public health threat since all serovars of Salmonella are considered human pathogens,” the warning letter continued.

“According to your firm’s management, your cleaning procedure in between flocks includes a step where the manure belts are run for removal of all manure, dust, dirt, and feathers prior to being sprayed with disinfectant. However, it is not clear if you remove manure from other surfaces.”

FDA says the manure must be removed in such situations.

Egg producers using both tight and loose confinement systems have  failed FDA’s inspections since the agency imposed tougher conditions five years ago to control Salmonella Enteritis in table eggs.  However,  there is some evidence to suggest closer confinement of laying hens makes it easier to control pathogens, too.

Currently, demand for “cage-free” eggs is far greater than the supply especially with the market restrictions in California. Numerous egg-buyers are promising their customers only “cage-free” eggs at some date in the future — most cite the year 2025 as the soonest it can happen.

Good Earth Eggs has until later this week to respond to FDA’s demands.

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