Eggs Slip Through the Cracks of a Fractured Food Safety System

DES MOINES, IA–As consumers scramble to check their egg cartons and federal officials investigate two Iowa farms at the center of a half-billion egg recall, it’s becoming clear that no one was overseeing egg safety in Iowa.

In a piecemeal federal system many consider illogical, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture share jurisdiction over the safety of the food supply–and eggs fall into the divide. The FDA, responsible for the safety of shell eggs, says it has “no inspectional history” with either Hillandale Farms or Wright County Egg, who together have recalled 550 million eggs for Salmonella Enteritidis contamination in the past two weeks.

chicken-cage2-featured.jpgUSDA is responsible for “breaker plants,” which take whole shell eggs and process them into pasteurized liquid egg products destined for cake mixes, salad dressings, and other foods. The agency also grades shell eggs on quality and proper weight and administers a Salmonella control program for chicks destined for egg laying operations.

Neither federal agency, nor the Iowa State Department of Agriculture, has inspected Wright County Egg or Hillandale Farms for cleanliness or preventative controls to help keep Salmonella out of eggs headed for kitchen tables.

Dustin Vande Hoef, a spokesman for Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, told Food Safety News state officials only regulate the poultry litter and manure aspects of egg facilities, ensuring the waste is being applied to fields appropriately.

According to Jeff Farrar, FDA’s associate commissioner for food protection, most of the agency’s inspection of egg facilities has been in response to foodborne illness outbreaks.

“With the passage of the egg rule we now have those standards and we will be beginning routine inspections of egg farms throughout the United States,” Farrar said Monday in reference to an egg safety rule that went into effect July 9, months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started noticing a spike in Salmonella cases related to eggs.

Thumbnail image for cdc-egg-advice.jpgWhile the lack of egg facility inspections may come as a shock to many consumers, it doesn’t surprise Dr. Darrell Trampel, a poultry veterinarian and research specialist at Iowa State University, who works closely with the egg industry.

“There are no requirements to inspect almost any kind of livestock farm. There’s no requirements for inspecting turkeys, or chickens, or pigs or cows,” said Trampel in an interview. “It’s just not a regulatory requirement in this country.”

“Most of the time [companies] do a pretty good job at regulating themselves, and it’s in their own self interest to regulate themselves, because obviously in an outbreak like we’re having now it’s disastrous for the individual company and for the industry as a whole,” said Trampel, noting that the egg industry has been largely successful in reducing the number of Salmonella outbreaks tied to eggs through voluntary measures over the past two decades.

“They’ve done a lot voluntarily and the FDA rules that just went into effect will make them even more effective in preventing this problem,” said Trampel.

“It’s something of an unfortunate irony of this outbreak [that] just a few weeks ago on July 9 FDA implemented new egg safety rules that for the first time put specific food safety standards in place so that we can hold companies accountable for taking the right preventive measures to reduce the risk of Salmonella and other foodborne illnesses,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg on a call with reporters Monday.

Hamburg said the FDA plans to to inspect hundreds of egg facilities in the next 12 months “to ensure that they’re being followed.”

Trampel believes the new requirements will be a boon to public health as well as animal disease research. With increased reporting, “We’ll now know how many [facilities] are infected, when they’re infected, and where they’re infected with [Salmonella Enteritidis].”

Exactly where the contamination that sparked the current recall occurred remains unknown.

Trampel, who visited DeCoster’s operation last Spring, said the firm appeared to have

a pest control program in place and that the houses he visited were

standard, “no better, no worse” than others he’s seen.

To keep

Salmonella from infecting tens of thousands of birds held in close

quarters, firms have to have effective pest management programs in

place, says Trampel, who cooks his egg thoroughly “no matter where they

come from.” He believes the current problem likely originated with mice.

FDA Commissioner Hamburg told reporters, “In general, the likely sources of Salmonella outbreaks on egg farms include rodents, shipments of contaminated chicks or hens, lack of biosecurity controls, and tainted feed.  We’re obviously checking out all of those possibilities and other conditions and practices.”

FDA officials on the ground in Iowa continue to investigate the implicated facilities. The agency says they hope to release preliminary results from that investigation this week.

Consumers concerned about the safety of their eggs should visit for information about the recall and proper food handling.