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Egg-borne disease is preventable: So why aren’t we doing It?

Opinion

To better understand my recent opinion piece on Rose Acre Farms, let me further clarify a few things. I am a sanitarian by training, I am not per se an expert in all aspects of poultry or egg production.

I have a bias toward sanitation, which is the maintenance of healthful conditions, as a primary, if not the most fundamental disease control practice. As an environmental health professional, I am focused on preventing routes of disease transmission through the environment. To do this, we must understand that the routes are complex and involve three fundamental interactive epidemiological principles. Those are agent, host and environment.

In my foodborne-communicable disease investigation work over the past 40 years, it’s notable that in almost all cases, gross contamination involving the food is evident. Most often, the disease agent is passed either directly from an infected source, such as a human or other animal, or indirectly via cross contamination through an environmental exposure to contaminated air, water, humans, surfaces or foods.

The nature of the 2018 Rose Acre Farms outbreak and recall is not typical in that we have vertical transmission of Salmonella from the ovary of the chicken to the egg. In this case the factors of agent and host are working somewhat independently from the environmental source, but there must always be an environmental source somewhere in the chain of infection. Recognizing the potential sources of contamination is problematic of course, as the environmental conditions in poultry operations are highly conducive to the propagation of bacteria.

We know from the FDA investigations of both the 2018 Rose Acre and the Quality Egg outbreak 10 years ago, and my own personal observations, that there were poor environmental sanitation conditions, especially the rodent vector problem that cannot be ignored. Some industry experts at Egg-News have publicly claimed that no matter how many rodents or flies are breeding in the manure beneath the cages, that if the chickens are not infected to begin with, they will not become infected.

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However, it cannot be denied that transmission to the layer-hens happened through some exposure of the chicken to salmonella in the layer-house. The potential sources there are water and chicken feed. Depending on the situation, rodents could spread the bacteria around an entire operation and contaminate feed storage areas and water sources, especially when the infestation is severe, as it was at Rose Acres. Flies are also capable of becoming vectors.

There was also processing happening at both operations where eggs were washed and further handled, so we might have a situation where the shell is contaminated, leading to problems in further handling. The sanitation at Rose Acres is suspect based on FDA finding poor cleaning methods of the equipment, and I personally observed the same or similar problems at Quality Egg. Pardon me, but  I don’t believe all of this is coincidence.

Salmonella Braenderup is not a typical egg-associated Salmonellae strain, the same industry experts have also publicly claimed that a possible environmental route might exist, such as a structural defect. In this case I agree with that, based on FDA findings.

Why I believe there is a bigger problem in the egg industry is that Quality Egg and Rose Acre farms, the bad actors I am referring to, are some of the biggest producers in the United States, so it cannot be said that the issues are isolated to a small segment of the industry. It is simply not enough for industry spokespeople to claim most egg producers are safe when we have massive contamination of the food supply and untold numbers of human infections through eggs.

Foodborne illness surveillance systems like CDC’s Foodnet show Salmonella infections in the population are still almost at baseline after almost 20 years of hard work by the food industry as whole to put into place best management practices. So, it’s aggravating when we see major food operators flaunt the rules.

I know Rose Acre said, “we have to do better.” That is a healthy response and a good starting place, if they have the capacity and the commitment to follow through. The Netherlands eliminated Salmonella from their egg supply many years ago through meticulous hygiene in the entire operation.

The deeper problem I am alluding to is that while these egg industry bad actors are known to the buying community, the supply chain seems unwilling to make buying decisions based on food safety. That is also egregious, since we now have laws in place through FSMA that are supposed to curb that mentality.

And what about Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in all of this? They seem to be just standing by until something bad happens then they go into reactive mode. This should not be. In fact, disease transmission is preventable, so why are we not doing it?

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