Number four in our top food safety stories of the year was the recall of more than 500 million shell eggs in August:


Just 35 days after a new federal egg rule went into effect on July 9, the public learned about a nasty, nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis.

It was not a pleasant chain of events for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was left doing most of the explaining about its implementation plan for the new egg rule while the largest recall of shell eggs in American history was underway.

Under the egg rule, facilities with 50,000 or more laying hens must establish controls to prevent contamination, including refrigeration of eggs within 36 hours of laying, ensuring chicks are from uninfected flocks, and testing hen houses for Salmonella Enteriditis.

Egg producers are legally responsible for implementing measures that will prevent egg contamination.

Federal regulators now plan to inspect production facilities where 80 percent of the country’s shell eggs are produced, and FDA said over the next 15 months (or through late 2011) it  will inspect about 600 egg producers–those with 50,000 or more laying hens–to determine if they  are in compliance with the new egg rule.

Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commission for foods, said that although the new rule came too late to prevent the 2010 outbreak, “we think it is going to be a powerful tool for preventing outbreaks like this in the future.”

The more than one half billion recalled shell eggs were from just two Iowa egg production facilities–Wright County Egg, also known as Quality Egg LLC, and Hillandale Farms.

Going into the egg producers’ poultry houses on Aug. 12, just ahead of the recall notices, FDA investigators observed and documented conditions at the two facilities.  David Elder, FDA’s director of regional operations, said inspectors found “significant objectionable” conditions, including live and dead flies “too numerous to count,” live rodents, maggots, overflowing manure pits and structural damage that allowed animals to enter. 

The two Iowa egg production facilities, located less than 100 miles from one another in north central Iowa, were served by the same feed mill, which was a suspected source of the Salmonella contamination.

Egg producer Austin “Jack” DeCoster, notorious for being named as a habitual violator of Iowa’s environmental laws, was known to have an ownership stake in both facilities, a fact that exempted the feed mill from state inspection.

Congress wanted both DeCoster and Hillandale’s Orlando Bethel to testify at a subcommittee hearing, but Bethel invoked the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. 

DeCoster and son Peter, who runs Wright, did talk, however, telling the panel they wanted to apologize to anyone who was “sickened by eating our eggs.”

DeCoster said a severe Iowa winter was responsible for the delay in removing manure from egg production barns, and said he suspected bone meal in the chicken feed was the source of the contamination.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, approximately 1,939 people were infected with Salmonella Enteritidis associated with the egg outbreak between May 1 and Nov. 30, 2010.

Because Salmonella Enteritidis has returned to baseline levels, CDC says this outbreak has ended.

Hillandale Farms was permitted to resume shipping shell eggs on Oct. 18, and Quality Egg on Nov. 30.