A day after the CDC reported two dozen more people have been confirmed with Salmonella infections traced to eggs, a member of Congress asked the head of the Food and Drug Administration to explain what the agency has been doing to enforce the federal Egg Safety Rule.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, cited the current outbreak traced to eggs from Gravel Ridge Farms and an outbreak earlier this year that was traced to eggs from Rose Acre Farms in her Oct. 4 letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

Investigators from the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported strains of Salmonella found at the two companies’ farms match Salmonella bacteria isolated in samples collected from patients. The CDC has declared the outbreak traced to Rose Acre Farms is over, but the outbreak traced to Gravel Ridge Farms is ongoing. As of this week, 38 people across seven states have been confirmed with Salmonella infections linked to Gravel Ridge Farms. 

The contamination at the farms and resulting illnesses are exactly what the Egg Safety Rule was designed to prevent. 

DeLauro acknowledged that FDA shares responsibility with a couple of subagencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the safety of the nation’s eggs. However, the FDA has the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to whole eggs sold in the shell, including having jurisdiction over the safety of the feed laying hens eat.

Rosa DeLauro

“In 2010 the FDA issued a final Egg Safety Rule for egg producers with 50,000 or more laying hens. Under this rule, egg producers must implement safety standards to control risks associated with pests, rodents, and other hazards; they must purchase chicks and hens from suppliers who control for Salmonella in their flocks; while also satisfying testing, cleaning, and refrigeration provisions to prevent Salmonella,” DeLauro wrote.

“Nonetheless, there have been two very large outbreaks in shell eggs this year, resulting in the total recall of more than 206 million eggs. A Salmonella Braenderup outbreak, linked to eggs from Rose Acre Farms, caused 45 illnesses and 11 hospitalizations in 10 states. Inspectors at the farm found rodent infestation, ineffective pest controls, and unsanitary conditions.”

When the Egg Safety Rule was published, the FDA estimated it would prevent 79,000 illnesses and 30 deaths annually, based on the U.S. egg industry at the time. 

After the rule went into effect for the largest egg producers, the FDA committed to inspecting more than 600 farms through 2011 to ensure compliance with the safety requirements. Smaller producers, with between 3,000 and 50,000 laying hens, had to comply with the rule by July 2012.

In the context of this year’s Salmonella outbreaks traced to shell eggs, DeLauro told Gottlieb she wants written answers to questions about five key aspects of egg production and oversight. Specifically she asked:

  1. Cage-free and organic labels on eggs do not necessarily mean laying hens are allowed to roam outdoors. Photo illustration

    How many inspections has FDA conducted since the 2010 regulation went into effect, and what have been the results of these inspections?  What is the nature of the majority of the violations?

  2. To what extent has FDA assessed the effectiveness of the egg safety rule in preventing foodborne illness?
  3. To what extent has FDA collaborated with USDA agencies, including AMS, APHIS, and FSIS in overseeing shell eggs, since 2010 and especially during the 2018 Salmonella outbreaks?
  4. How, if at all, does FDA coordinate with state and local health departments on monitoring safe handling and good manufacturing practices in shell egg processing plants?
  5. With regard to the 2018 outbreaks of Salmonella related to Rose Acre Farms and Gravel Ridge Farms, what challenges has FDA faced in identifying the cause of the outbreak, and what improvements could be taken to strengthen oversight of shell eggs and improve investigations of egg-related outbreaks of foodborne illness?

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