The U.S. government’s “right hand” was grading and okaying egg shipments while its “left hand” was testing for and finding Salmonella contamination. And the right hand had no idea what the left hand was doing.
That pretty well sums up the findings of USDA’s Inspector General, who was brought in to scrutinize the Nov. 5 recall by Cal-Maine Foods of eggs from Ohio Fresh Eggs.
The IG audit said USDA egg graders approved the Ohio Fresh Eggs for shipment without knowing inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had discovered Salmonella contamination.
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) “is not permitted to put the grademark on any shell eggs that are not fit for human consumption, including shell eggs adulterated with SE (Salmonella Enteritidis),” the IG said.
But over 270,000 of the 280,000 shell eggs from Ohio Fresh carried the official USDA grademark. “The AMS graders who placed the grademark on the shell eggs were unaware that the Ohio producer recently had an environmental positive test result for SE at one of its egg laying barns since neither the plant management nor FDA officials notified AMS that SE had been detected,” the IG report says.
“As a result, shell eggs containing the official USDA grademark were shipped to commerce, even though the shell eggs were considered adulterated with SE,” the IG added.
After the recall was announced, Ohio Fresh claimed the SE-contaminated eggs were shipped by mistake.
The IG does make the point that egg production facilities at Ohio Fresh include laying barns where USDA and FDA both have regulatory authority and shell egg packing areas where AMS graders are responsible for issuing USDA marks. Grading services are provided under contract for the egg producer.
AMS egg graders working under those contracts do not have authority to enter the egg laying barns. More importantly, according to the IG, the contracts AMS uses with egg producers do not require the companies to tell the egg graders when there has been a positive test for pathogen contamination.
And while AMS is conflicted with its dual marketing and food safety roles, the IG notes that FDA also does not require plant management to report positive test results to either agency.
“According to an AMS officials,” the IG said, “the Ohio producer only confirmed that the pink dyed eggs came from the disinfectant used to clean the egg laying barn, and did not inform AMS personnel of the SE environmental positive test result.”
AMS officials told the IG they did not learn about the October 2010 Salmonella contamination at Ohio Fresh until they read a Nov. 7 news article on the Internet about the recall.
The IG report also says the AMS supervisor at Ohio Fresh said eggs with pink dye were originally not shipped because they did not meet quality standards, but they were mistakenly sent to Arkansas where they were graded by another AMS grader.
Ohio Fresh, the AMS supervisor said, sent the eggs to a nearby plant for processing, but they were mistakenly routed to Arkansas where they were graded. The IG said AMS should change its procedure to make sure that does not happen again.
In a separate matter, a half billion-shell eggs were recalled in August, 2010, by two Iowa egg production facilities, also for SE contamination. More than 1,000 people were infected by Salmonella in the outbreak associated with the Iowa egg recall.
Egg baron Jack DeCoster is an investor and/or owner in both the Iowa facilities and Ohio Fresh.