The House and Senate Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Oversight Committees should hold joint hearings on the Salmonella egg fiasco.
As I said to the Associate Press yesterday, “The history of ignoring the law makes the sickening of 1,300 and the forced recall of 550 million eggs shockingly understandable.” I was talking about the owner of the largest egg farm at the center of this massive recall and outbreak of Salmonella Enteriditis. As the AP found, the owner, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, is no stranger to controversy in his food and farm operations:
– In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” He cited unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria, and other unsanitary conditions.
– In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a “habitual violator” of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.
– In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse, and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.
– In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at six DeCoster egg farms. The farm had been the subject of at least three previous raids.
– In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.
Yesterday, according to the Washington Post, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), announced plans to ask the Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department about DeCoster. DeLauro’s questions are aimed at getting more information about how much federal regulators knew about DeCoster’s poor compliance record and what steps were taken to ensure safety at DeCoster’s facilities.
I think questions should be asked. Actually–a lot of questions. However, in addition to Congresswoman DeLauro’s, I would ask the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service together (hence the joint hearing), who was in charge of what in inspecting the DeCoster farms prior to the beginning of the Salmonella outbreak in late May? Will that jurisdiction change now that the ìEgg Ruleî (also known as ìFederal Register Final Rule (July 9, 2009, 74 FR 33030): Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportationî) is in effect? Is this apparent ìjoint jurisdictionî between FDA and FSIS the best way of assuring the public that eggs will be safer? Are resources sufficient to assure the public that the most is being done to protect them and prevent a similar debachle from happening?
For good measure, I would ask DeCoster to come and explain (under oath) to the Committee if his farms were complying with the spirit and/or letter of the ìEgg Ruleî before the recall and outbreak. Here are the highlights of the Rule:
• Buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for Salmonella bacteria;
• Establish rodent, pest control, and biosecurity measures to prevent the 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);
• Environmental Testing for Salmonella Enteritidis. There are specific requirements on when and how to test for the pathogen and coordination with pullet testing; and,
• Egg Testing for Salmonella Enteritidis. Whenever you have reason to know/suspect of presence of Salmonella Enteritidis. Two week intervals in positive poultry houses.
The FDA said that if DeCoster had been following the ìEgg Ruleî this outbreak would not have happened. Really? His farms really were not trying to follow the common sense ideas above before this happened? If he was following the Rule, where was the error made? Or, is there something wrong with the Rule?
Much to talk about, much to learn.