FDA Investigators Find Salmonella Linking Iowa Farms to Outbreak, CDC Reports Jump in Illnesses

Food and Drug Administration officials said yesterday their preliminary investigation has identified Salmonella-positive samples, linking two Iowa farms to a multi-state Salmonella outbreak and half-billion egg recall.

According to Sherri McGarry, emergency coordinator at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, investigators on the ground in Iowa have collected over 600 samples from 24 different sources, including manure, walkways, and feed, at the two facilities. Though the majority of the samples are being processed, the agency released preliminary results. Four samples, two from Wright County Egg barns, and two from Wright County feed, tested positive for Salmonella Enteritidis and match the genetic fingerprint of the outbreak strain.

wright-county-egg-featured.jpgFDA officials say the feed from Wright County, which was also fed to young chickens supplied to Hillandale Farms, is a likely link between the two farms. Though McGarry noted on a call with reporters yesterday “there could be other sources of contamination.”

Joshua Sharfstein, deputy commissioner of the FDA, emphasized that it was early to draw conclusions that the feed is the primary cause of contamination, noting that the positive samples could be symptomatic of wider contamination.

“There is evidence of contamination at the farm. While they have found it in feed, they are not concluding any cause-and-effect relationship,” said Sharfstein. “There are multiple potential routes of contamination.”

FDA officials declined to provide details on the condition and extent of contamination in the facilities under investigation. “It’s really too early for evaluating the extent of contamination on the farm,” added Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection at FDA.

During the media briefing, federal officials also announced that the illness count has increased.

Between May and August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention usually expects around 900 Salmonella Enteritidis cases will be reported. With the egg fiasco, that number has jumped to just over 2,400. No deaths and no new clusters of illness have been reported.

The new figures make the current outbreak the largest for this particular pathogen since the reporting system began in the 1970s, according to Dr. Chris Braden, acting director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne,Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.

The number is likely to rise given the lag time in reporting. It typically takes two to three weeks for Salmonella reports to “traverse the system,” said Braden.

Another Lawsuit Filed

Quality Egg, which does business under the name Wright County Egg, now faces a third lawsuit brought by the Seattle food safety lawyers at Marler Clark.   The firm has filed lawsuits on behalf of Salmonella outbreak victims from Wisconsin, California, and North Carolina.  

This latest lawsuit was filed on behalf a child from Massachusetts who became ill with a Salmonella enteritidis infection after eating food purchased at the Bullock’s Barbeque restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, in April.  The lawsuit was filed in Federal District Court in Iowa.  

According to the North Carolina Department of Health, at least 74 people became ill with Salmonella enteritidis infections–17 of which were confirmed through laboratory testing–after eating a dessert that contained meringue made from pasteurized egg white product from Bullock’s Barbeque purchased from White County Egg in April. “We’re very confident the outbreak at Bullock’s caused by the commercial egg product can be traced back to eggs in this recall,” Megan Davies, North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, told the News & Observer Thursday.

The Massachusetts child who filed suit yesterday fell ill with symptoms of Salmonella infection days after returning home from North Carolina.  She sought medical treatment and was hospitalized for a week.  Test results were positive for Salmonella enteritidis.

“Wright County Egg has harmed consumers, restaurants, distributors, and conscientious producers with its flagrant disregard of the law,” said her attorney, Bill Marler

Pictured: Trucks loading at Wright County Egg near Galt, Iowa on August 25, 2010. Photo by Helena Bottemiller.