What the USDA and the FDA can learn from the recall of 500 million eggs due to salmonella.

Health and medicine explained.
Aug. 24 2010 5:49 PM

Egg on Their Faces

What the USDA and the FDA can learn from the recall of 500 million eggs due to salmonella.

Eggs. Click image to expand.
How to keep eggs safe from salmonella

As you scramble to determine whether the eggs in your fridge have been affected by the massive recall over salmonella, blame unclear jurisdiction. The bumbling "Who's in charge?" helped to generate the current U.S. outbreak. But some good may come from the disastrous recall: It may give new life to legislation that would strengthen oversight of agricultural producers and keep consumers safe.

Historically, eggs have fallen into the cracks between animal and food products and the federal divisions that regulate each. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees our animals and plants, while the Food and Drug Administration is charged with monitoring our food. But what about hens who are raised to produce eggs for human consumption? Bacteria have crept into this no-man's bureaucratic land, infecting live chickens and then coating the surface of the eggs they produce.

What is most significant in this salmonella frenzy is not the number of humans who have fallen ill so far—an estimated 1,300 cases have been documented—but the number of eggs that must be recalled in order to try to slow the spread: more than 500 million from two Iowa distributors. This lopsided ratio demonstrates just how difficult it is to find the elusive infected egg once a bacterium like salmonella gets loose in the henhouse. It also shines a light on the ineffectiveness of our federal regulators at monitoring and controlling the process of egg production.

The hens live tightly packed together in cages, facilitating the transmission of bacteria. There have been reports of dead hens in the same cages where live hens are producing eggs for human consumption. Salmonella outbreaks frequently originate when rodents get into the feed and their droppings are infected with the bacteria, which the hens consume, passing it along to their eggs. Austin "Jack" Decoster—who is the owner of Wright County Egg, the first farm implicated, and a supplier of chickens as well as feed to both farms—has been cited for many health and safety violations since the 1990s. Conditions at some of his facilities have been deemed dangerous and oppressive. In 2000, he was cited for hog-manure runoff into waterways; just this June, Maine Contract Farming (successor to Decoster Egg Farms) was cited for animal cruelty.

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So why haven't our federal agencies clamped down on Decoster and others like him? The USDA and the FDA have clearly laid an egg when it comes to keeping bacteria off the egg shells. For one thing, the FDA has been responsible for monitoring eggs after they have been processed and the USDA before. Furthermore, USDA inspections have not involved issues of food safety but rather quality-control issues such as appearance, cracks, and thickness. And historically, the FDA has only become involved with food-safety issues at the farms once problems crop up—after the cases of salmonella have already been spotted, recalling millions of eggs too late to stop the problem. But even without sufficient official regulations to guide them, it seems clear that a more proactive coordinated effort at improving conditions and better screening involving both the USDA and FDA could have kept contagions from emerging. The poor conditions that have led to these outbreaks reflect badly on both agencies.

This may soon change: One month ago, new regulations were instituted that enable the USDA and FDA to better share responsibility to inspect egg manufacturers, with the FDA playing a more prominent role. The regulations, originally announced in July 2009, also set new safety standards for farms, which were given one year to update their facilities and comply. The new regulations target egg safety, particularly salmonella, as a growing public health problem. The rules apply to large-scale egg producers (those with at least 50,000 laying hens) and call for refrigeration, rodent and pest control, and biosecurity measures. These changes, if implemented properly, might have prevented the outbreak: The new rules include mandates for better monitoring of nonpasteurized eggs and farms for salmonella, and also require facilities to test water and feed. Chicks must be purchased from places that monitor for salmonella; poultry houses that test positive for salmonella must be cleaned and disinfected.

With their new authority, the FDA plans to conduct frequent farm inspections. However, the inhumane conditions that the chickens live under will still not be addressed, and it is unclear just how compliant the farms will actually be. They may choose to pay a fine of several thousand dollars rather than spend the millions of dollars needed to truly reform egg production. 

Given the limpness of these changes, consumers, and their breakfasts, would be better served by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which has already passed the House and is currently before the Senate, where it has sat for several months. The delay is likely due to political concerns in an election year, but the new spotlight on egg safety seems likely to resurrect the legislation. Just this week, the Consumers Union has come out publically urging the Senate to pass it. This bill might provide the teeth the FDA needs to effectively clamp down on violators and make recalls mandatory. It also grants the Health and Human Services secretary the authority to close down facilities where a serious health risk is uncovered before unsafe foodstuffs make it onto grocery store shelves. (One caveat: There is some concern that the bill could hurt small businesses by subjecting small farms to the same kind of federal oversight as big consortiums.)

As congressional investigations begin into the causes of the current salmonella outbreak in eggs, all the media attention is creating an opportunity to finally reform the way chickens are raised and eggs are produced. Cooking an egg fully may kill the bacteria and protect your intestines, and screening for salmonella may keep it from getting onto your egg in the first place, but far more fundamental is the need to improve the conditions where the egg is laid.       

The USDA has been completely ineffective at keeping our hens healthy. Now it's the FDA's turn. The concept of food begins with live animals. In order to protect our stomachs, we must first protect our chickens.

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Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

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