New regulations for controlling the spread of a form of Salmonella, whose mode of transmission still isn’t entirely understood, kicked into effect last Friday.  The new regulations, the FDA insists, could reduce the number of illnesses by as many as 79,000 people, and deaths by up to 30 individuals, each year.

Announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a year ago, the regulations address several aspects of egg production, particularly spots where chickens and egg production seem most vulnerable to infection by Salmonella enteritidis. While the new regs only immediately effect the largest of the nation’s egg producers, those producers also account for the overwhelming number of eggs produced.

According to United Egg Producers, an Atlanta-based industry group which lobbies on behalf of large-scale egg producers, “there are approximately 192 egg producing companies with flocks of 75,000 hens or more. These companies represent about 95% of all the layers in the United States.”

egg-carton-iphone.jpgSmall farmers, those with less than 3,000 hens or those who sell directly to consumers, aren’t affected by the new regulations. Farmers with less than 50,000 hens but more than 3,000 had to begin compliance on July 10, 2012, unless the eggs are treated in some way, or pasteurized.

S. enteriditis typically causes illness after people have eaten raw or lightly cooked eggs contaminated with the bacteria. Raw eggs are commonly used in Caesar salad dressing as well as homemade ice cream, egg nog, and mayonnaise, and many people enjoy eating eggs with barely cooked yolks. Unfortunately for fans of their eggs cooked sunny side up, the yolk is also where the bacteria are most prevalent. Nationwide, more than 118,000 egg-related cases of Salmonella are confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that nearly 3 million eggs sold each year are contaminated with Salmonella bacteria.

As of last week, the nation’s largest producers are required to adhere to the following guidelines established by the FDA:

• “Buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for Salmonella bacteria

• “Establish rodent, pest control, and biosecurity measures to prevent spread of bacteria throughout the farm by people and equipment

• “Conduct testing in the poultry house for Salmonella enteritidis. If the tests find the bacterium, a representative sample of the eggs must be tested over an eight-week time period (four tests at two-week intervals); if any of the four egg tests is positive, the producer must further process the eggs to destroy the bacteria, or divert the eggs to a non-food use

• “Clean and disinfect poultry houses that have tested positive for Salmonella enteritidis

• “Refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees F during storage and transportation no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid (this requirement also applies to egg producers whose eggs receive a treatment, such as pasteurization).”

The egg industry says it is committed to working with the FDA on the new regulations but seemed to downplay the need for them.

“Egg farmers have practiced the requirements of the new regulations for many years now and have achieved significant success in food safety for our customers,” said Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, in a release.

The country’s egg producers were already putting new safety measures in place “while they waited for the final Federal rule,” the United Egg Producers release continued. The release also mentioned a number of suggestions industry leaders had offered to help improve safety but noted “some suggestions that the industry still considers important were not accepted.”

The release did not outline or describe those suggestions.
Salmonella enteriditis has proven to be a particularly vexing issue for the U.S. egg industry. About 1 in 20,000 eggs are believed to be contaminated with the bacterium. While the industry enjoyed important success in the early 1970s in reducing other forms of Salmonella infections directly related to fecal contamination, S. enteriditis popped up in the 1980s leading some scientists to believe it might have evolved during the previous decade.

Tracking down the sources of S. enteriditis contamination is no small feat. The United States is the world’s second largest egg producer after China. Some 276 millions hens in the U.S. lay more than 6 billion eggs per month.

Unlike other forms of Salmonella, S. enteritidis does its work from inside the egg. The pathogen, the second most common cause of Salmonella-related illnesses in the U.S., infects the hen’s uterus but scientists aren’t especially clear on how that happens.  A study published by scientists in the Chinese World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2007 found evidence the pathogen actually spurs physiological changes in membranes in the birds’ guts, allowing the bacteria to gain a foothold and multiply.