Flies “too numerous to count,” rodents, wild birds, maggots, and open piles of manure four to eight feet high were among the observations released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration yesterday, illustrating “significant objectionable conditions” at two Iowa egg farms responsible for the recent recall of over half a billion eggs.
With the release of the inspection reports for Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, FDA said the two companies failed to implement internal protocols and FDA egg regulations, which went into affect July 9.
The farms came under investigation after being linked to a sharp spike in Salmonella enteritidis illnesses between May and August. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 1,500 reported illnesses are likely linked to the outbreak.
Federal officials are still trying determine exactly how the disease-causing bacteria entered the large-scale egg facilities. The observational reports released yesterday indicate there are numerous possible modes of contamination.
“The firm failed to prevent stray poultry, wild birds, cats, and other animals from entering poultry houses,” said David Elder, director of the FDA’s Office of Regional Operations, of Wright County Egg, adding that in some cases large piles of manure pushed open entrances, allowing rodents and wildlife access to the poultry houses.
In over a dozen of the houses, investigators reported finding between two and five live mice per facility.
At Hillandale Farms, a water sample collected from “spent egg wash water”–water used to rinse the eggs–tested positive for a strain of Salmonella indistinguishable from the outbreak strain that has been isolated from people with salmonellosis.
Hillandale also showed evidence of a pest problem. Investigators noted dozens of rodent holes, as well as live mice, inside the facilities.
At both farms, FDA investigators witnessed uncaged, or escaped, hens tracking manure
from piles to the caged hen areas, providing an easy means of
“Clearly the observations here reflect significant deviations from what’s expected,” said Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for food at FDA, in a call with reporters yesterday.
Taylor emphasized that the agency believes enforcement of the new egg rule will help prevent similar incidents. “We think its going to be a powerful tool for preventing outbreaks like this in the future,” said Taylor. “It is their legal duty, now, to meet these standards.”
FDA is going to “very thoroughly” enforce the rule, said Taylor.
In the next 15 months the agency plans to inspect all of the approximately 600 egg firms currently under the rule–all firms with more than 50,000 laying hens–which make up about 80 percent of domestic egg production. Taylor said the inspections will begin in September.
Elder told reporters that “all options are under consideration” for enforcement actions against the companies, but explained that FDA does not comment on enforcement decisions before they are enacted. Injunctions and criminal prosecution are among the possibilities.
Longtime food safety advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest called the agency’s findings “stomach-churning,” in a statement yesterday.
“FDA found rodents and wild birds in the facilities, and five of the Wright County Egg facilities had giant manure piles inside their buildings,” noted Smith DeWaal. “These violations are reminiscent of similar findings in another major outbreak linked to peanut butter.”
“Equally troubling is that the inspections occurred the month following the date that the new egg-safety regulation went into effect,” she added. “Both companies involved had been on notice that they needed to meet requirements of the new egg-safety rule for over a year.”
“The decrepit conditions in these hen houses reflect the fact that companies know that FDA inspections are so rare–even following the adoption of a new safety regulation–that there is no urgency to fix their buildings and their operations to assure compliance with FDA statutes and regulations,” she added.
FDA says the two farms have agreed to not sell shell eggs to consumers until the agency is confident the eggs are safe for consumption. Until the firms are given the go-ahead, eggs are being sent to “breaker” facilities to be pasteurized for use in processed foods and other consumer goods.
Both companies responded by saying they are acting quickly to correct problems identified by FDA. Wright County Egg said they have “worked around the clock” to address concerns raised during the inspection.
“To date, the vast majority of the concerns identified in the FDA report already have been addressed through repairs or other corrective measures,” said the company in a statement. “We anticipate the expeditious completion of nearly all remaining items by mid-September.”
Taylor said yesterday that FDA has no reason to believe that the conditions found at Hillandale and Wright County are indicative of the entire egg industry.