August 24, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 19Comment

The Iowa-based company Wright County Egg is recalling 380 million eggs, which were sold to distributors and wholesalers in 22 states and Mexico, due to concerns about salmonella contamination. The eggs have been sold under several different brand names, so if you’ve got eggs in your fridge you can check FDA’s page for info. Salmonella-infected eggs traceable to this producer may have caused as many as 1,200 cases of intestinal illness in at least 10 states over the past several weeks. A second producer, Hillandale Farms, has also issued a recall 170 million eggs that have been shipped to 14 states.

Before getting into what’s wrong with our food-safety system, I want to note the recall might not have happened at all if it weren’t for surveillance and investigation activities at the state and national levels.

Officials identified the problem because CDC’s PulseNet network (whose participant labs perform molecular subtyping of foodborne disease-causing bacteria) identified a much larger than usual number of Salmonella Enteritidis isolates in the samples it received. Ordinarily, CDC gets an average of 50 reports of SE illnesses weekly, but it started receiving approximately 200 reports per week during late June and early July. Public health officials in California, Colorado, and Minnesota conducted epidemiologic investigations and found that shell eggs were the likely source of infection. FDA, CDC, and state partners then conducted traceback investigations and found that many of the restaurants and events where multiple people became ill with SE got their eggs from Wright County Egg.

Disease surveillance is rarely at the top of the priority list for states and federal agencies, and resources are often slashed during tough budget times. In fact, the New York Times recently reported that funding is being eliminated for CDC’s vector-borne disease branch; this branch tracks diseases like dengue, which has recently been detected in Florida for the first time since 1934. Given that large outbreaks of foodborne illness have been alarmingly common over the past few years, FDA and CDC will probably continue their food-related investigation activities. Surveillance activities like PulseNet, though, rely on state and local health departments to perform molecular subtyping and submit those results to the national network – and in many states and localities, health departments lack sufficient funding. Lucky for us, some states have continued to fund the important work of detecting and investigating foodborne illness outbreaks.

So our surveillance and investigation system, while it could certainly use more resources, has managed to identify the source of this outbreak of SE illness. But as this and other recent foodborne-illness outbreaks demonstrate, the regulatory system that aims to prevent harmful bacteria from entering the food supply isn’t equal to all the challenges of today’s food-production system.

It’s not as though food safety in this country is a complete disaster; most of us probably feel confident that the food we buy at the grocery store or a restaurant won’t make us sick. CDC lists “Safer and Healthier Foods” as one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century. But widespread outbreaks of foodborne illnesses are happening with disturbing regularity – think of spinach, beef, peanut butter, and jalapeños in recent years.

The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council put out a report in 1998 about the US food safety system, and its findings still hold true today:

Summary Findings: The Current US System for Food Safety

  • Has many of the attributes of an effective system;
  • is a complex, inter-related activity involving government at all levels, the food industry from farm and sea to table, universities, the media, and the consumer;
  • is moving toward a more science-based approach with HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point monitoring systems] and with risk based assessment
  • is limited by statute in implementing practices and enforcement that are based in science;
  • is fragmented by having 12 primary federal agencies involved in key functions of safety: monitoring, surveillance, inspection, enforcement, outbreak management, research, and education; and
  • is facing tremendous pressures with regard to:
  • — emerging pathogens and ability to detect them;
    — maintaining adequate inspection and monitoring of the increasing volume of imported foods, especially fruits and vegetables; maintaining adequate inspection of commercial food services and the increasing number of larger food processing plants; and
    — the growing number of people at high risk for foodborne illnesses.

The pressures related to increasing imports and large food processing plants have probably grown even more intense over the past decade, as global trade has increased and trends toward greater consolidation in the food industry have continued.

At the root of the fragmentation issue is the fact that USDA and FDA share food safety responsibilities. Relative to FDA, USDA is well-staffed, and its inspectors make daily visits to slaughterhouses and to plants that produce processed food involving meats. USDA regulates the health of chickens, but not their eggs; FDA is responsible for eggs, and pretty much all other food. Critics of the current food system often point out that USDA is responsible for the safety of frozen pepperoni pizzas, while FDA is responsible for the safety of frozen cheese pizzas.

The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton points out that Congress and FDA have been working to address FDA’s food safety shortcomings and the issue of eggs in particular:

Although it has broad authority to regulate the production of food, the FDA historically has inspected egg-laying facilities only if it suspected contamination, said [FDA Associate Commissioner for Food Protection Jeff] Farrar. That is likely to change under a new agency rule that took effect in July. And food safety legislation pending on Capitol Hill would require the FDA to routinely inspect high-risk food facilities, including henhouses.

… Under legislation that has passed in the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate in September, the FDA would be required to visit Wright County Egg and other similar producers annually. It would have access to internal company documents that show results of microbial testing and the company would be required to adopt a strategy to prevent contamination and prove that it follows the strategy. The bill also would require companies to keep uniform distribution records, making it easier and faster for the FDA to track contaminated food.

The current outbreak started before the new egg rule took effect, but it might help to prevent such outbreaks in the future. It requires egg producers to follow specific requirements – including pest control and Salmonella monitoring – to prevent Salmonella contamination. However, even the most stringent rules won’t ensure a safe food supply if producers are in the habit of breaking them.

The New York Times’ William Neuman reports that Wright County Egg owner Jack DeCoster is “well known to federal regulators” for past violations:

In 1997, one of his companies agreed to pay a $2 million fine by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violations in the workplace and worker housing. Officials said workers were forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands and to live in trailers infested with rats. The labor secretary in the Clinton administration, Robert B. Reich, called Mr. DeCoster’s operation “an agricultural sweatshop.”

Mr. DeCoster’s facilities have also been periodically raided by immigration officials. In 2003, Mr. DeCoster pleaded guilty to charges of knowingly hiring immigrants who were in the country illegally and he paid more than $2 million as part of a federal settlement.

Mr. DeCoster was also charged by Iowa authorities in the 1990s with violations of environmental rules governing hog manure runoff.

If our food safety system is going to be strengthened to meet the demands of a changing food landscape, we’re going to have to make it more likely that food producers who break the rules will be caught and stopped before they cause outbreaks of foodborne illness. That will probably require giving FDA (or another agency, if we decide to put all food safety responsibilities under a single one) more enforcement resources.

19 thoughts on “What the Egg Recall Says About Our Food Safety System

  1. I keep a few hens and eat homegrown eggs. I assume that Salmonella enteritidis is endemic to my flock. Hence, I wash my hands after gathering & washing eggs and cook my eggs thoroughly. If people simply exercised common sense Salmonella zoonosis wouldn’t be a problem. Instead, we have the FDA & USDA on our backs at taxpayer expense. This egg recall hype is symptomatic of the craziness of our times.

  2. If people exercised common sense…

    Given the current behavior which, presumably, you think is inappropriate, do you think that we should:
    1. Put more effort into educating people about safe handling, or
    2. Just reduce our monitoring, since it’s a waste of money trying to protect people who are doing something they should know is dangerous

    Also, the term ‘common sense’ is a dangerous one. It is frequently used to refer to things that people are expected to know, without paying enough attention to how they will know it. Many things that are ‘obvious’ are only obvious because you were educated about them a long time ago.

  3. Instead, we have the FDA & USDA on our backs at taxpayer expense. This egg recall hype is symptomatic of the craziness of our times.

    Posted by: darwinsdog | August 24, 2010 5:49 PM

    No, your attitude is the symptom of our time. Ignorance, arrogance and a plain fool-hardy belief in “virtuous capitalism.” You cry about the FDA and USDA being down our backs as if this egg recall is an aberration in the philanthropic corporate world.

    That’s just stupid arrogance that denies the reality of centuries of experience, including our own US-based companies running sweat-shops and knowingly selling danger and defective merchandise in less well-regulated countries. In fact, we have entire INDUSTRIES (homeopathy being one) that prey upon ignorance and sell defective and/or dangerous “patent remedies” that don’t work.

    Bottom line is without them keeping us somewhat safe, this egg recall would wouldn’t be a ripple in the perfect storm of food-borne illness and medical quackery. Fools who live by the myth of the “market will punish the transgressors” are deluded.

  4. Jack DeCoster is pretty notorious in Maine for how horrific his egg farms here were. Not just filthy with numerous health and safety violations but he also abused his low paid (and sometimes not paid) employees who were usually immigrants with little access to help since DeCoster actually denied visitors access to his workers even by their family. He’s been fined repeatedly and sued by the State of Maine.

    I’m no fan of overregulation but it’s clear that’s not the case here, the regulatory agencies involved don’t have the teeth they need to make real meaningful change to protect consumers and workers.

  5. More heartburn from a recent FDA ruling on hen health.

    U.S. Rejected Hen Vaccine Despite Success in Britain
    NYT Aug 24, 2010

    >Faced with a crisis more than a decade ago in which thousands of people were sickened from salmonella in infected eggs, farmers in Britain began vaccinating their hens against the bacteria. That simple but decisive step virtually wiped out the health threat.

    The situation in the US is a tad different with respect to probably sources of salmonella in poultry production facilities. However, vaccination would go a long way to reducing hen susceptibility to Salmonella.

    Testing the eggs for contamination and refrigeration won’t get rid of this persistent problem. Three primary sources have been identified, all easily remedied by *voluntary* actions by producers. One of them is henhouse environment.

    I think the Whitehouse is going to have to look at how criminal justice agencies – DOJ, TAF, and the FBI interact with state and county police and sheriff to attack various interstate trafficking issues where agency authority and responsibilities and jurisdictions overlap and back-up one another.

    The FDA and USDA do not play well together. Both organizations have field staff and State counterpart coordination issues. There are major gaps in regulatory oversight and inspections that have been identified many times as culprit for lax behaviors on the part of food producers and processing plants.

    Welcome to the Bug Wars. Calls for additional antibiotics to fight these pathogens WILL NOT WORK. Adding layers of bureaucracy and regulatory handholding WILL NOT WORK. Blaming end users for outbreaks WILL NOT WORK. They are the party to the pathogen chain of custody, but their end of the infectious disease pathway have separate issues, to be addressed elsewhere.

    The remedies I have are sensible, easily instituted, relatively low cost and for the most part, will be readily adopted by the regulated industries without complaint.

    The solutions address more than Salmonella contamination, answering much needed questions on the whys and wherefores for a dozen or more common food borne pathogens.

    The Administration and Federal Agency heads need to pull rabbits out of hats, to regain consumer confidence and boost overall belief that Things Will Get Better.

    It’s a very difficult time for many sectors in the US. Good News is in short supply. What I have to offer will go a long, long way to restoring faith in American know-how and problem-solving capacity- and the solutions are applicable to developed and developing nations alike.

    A good calling card, when you trying to boost International Relations. Correct, Mrs Clinton?

    Hints: Indonesia, China, Russia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan.

  6. Iasasal,

    Couldn’t agree more. It is lamentable that individuals who repeatedly ignore warnings that consumption of undercooked egg and poultry products increases the risk of foodborne illness are not sent to jail.

  7. #3

    Oh Heaven forbid we ever do anything for ourselves, not when we have the ever puissant state to do it for us. The government can only do so much, it’s up to us to do the sensible thing and cook the damn eggs. Cook them thoroughly and so minimize the danger from the salmonella bacteria.

    Being responsible for yourself is part of maturity, isn’t it about time you awoke to that fact?

  8. How lovely, Cooped Up, you now want to imprison children who ignore their mothers telling them not to taste the raw cookie dough, and grandmothers who enjoy a softboiled egg.

  9. I think Noadi’s comment was very important and lost amongst the noisier rhetoric.
    This Jack DeCoster character has quite a reputation:
    The Iowa attorney general called him a “habitual violator” of state laws.
    Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called his farms “atrocious.”
    A federal investigator said it was “inconceivable” he didn’t know his farms’ conditions.
    But he seems to have used his ‘influence’ in political circles to ensure that he can go about his business with the lowest quality control possible; many would argue that this is an accident waiting to happen. Certainly, BP were castigated for similar behaviour.
    The government agencies have reacted honourably and professionally; would that they had the powers to have acted earlier and prevented the likes of Jack DeCoster and his ilk from effectively distributing dangerous foodstuffs.

  10. @ darwinsdog: I keep chickens too, and have been known to eat eggs laid outside of the nest boxes. Salmonella spp. don’t survive a whole lot longer than four days on a non-porous dry surface (doi: 10.1016/S0168-1605(02)00540-8) but do survive much MUCH longer in soil and moist environments (doi: 10.1128/AEM.69.7.3687-3694.2003).

    An egg off my coop floor has been sitting in dry pine shavings, and has a shell so thick it can bounce on the ground without breaking due to the calcium supplement and high quality feed. After four days, it is still plenty fresh and hasn’t developed much of an air cell that would reduce its value. It has not been sitting in feces or deceased rotting chickens, it did not come from an unhealthy animal producing fragile shells, it has not been ever-so-slightly cracked by shipping and handling to allow bacteria inside.

    If you’re an agribusiness owner, it costs money to pay people to clean the henhouses. It costs money to dispose of waste, which is an enormous pollution problem. Costs money for Blue Seal, costs money for oyster shells, costs money to ensure gentle shipping & handling. Costs a TON of money to get a poultry vet to fuss over sick birds, even if the extension service handles a lot of the actual diagnostics & necropsies. Costs money to build henhouses with windows that open to fresh air and sunlight, as opposed to a big metal box.

    With a small flock, it costs me $6/month extra for the Blue Seal & calcium. It’s 20 minutes with a snowshovel to dump the litter on the compost heap and put down new shavings once a week. I picked up old storm windows a friend was throwing away when I built the coop, which was a lot easier than electrifying it. To me, chicken care is not much work–my cats require more fussing and money. But at large scale, in a business with thin profit margins, those costs can be very difficult to justify, especially if you’re not going to get caught screwing up or if the penalty when you do get caught is minimal.

    I guess I am saying, don’t assume that the quality of your eggs is equivalent to that of agribusiness eggs. The same market forces that produce economies of scale, in this instance are creating some extremely perverse incentives.

  11. @Big Blue: My hens are in a coop in winter but during the growing season they’re in bottomless pens that are moved every couple days, out on what used to be a lawn but is now a chicken pasture. When I gather eggs often they have been stepped on by hens with dirt & feces on their feet. I assume the eggs can transmit Salmonella and other pathogens, and hence wash them well, wash my hands, and cook the eggs at least over medium. Whether one consumes homegrown or battery produced eggs, it’s only common sense to exercise a certain degree of caution with them. Apparently posters don’t believe that Americans are capable of exercising such caution and hence need an enormous federal bureaucracy to compensate for lack of personal responsibility, and they expect taxpayers like me to pay for this bureaucracy. I find such attitudes disgusting, frankly.

  12. darwinsdog:

    Do you believe that, right now, people:
    A. Are not taking enough care with eggs, but know they should be
    B. Are not taking enough care, and don’t realize they should be
    C. Are taking enough care
    (I’m including C for completeness, I doubt you believe C)

    Based on what you think is going on, what do you think should be done? I understand what annoys you, I’m asking for more concrete statements.

  13. Gopi: All of the above. Some people aren’t taking sufficient care handling and cooking eggs because they don’t know any better, some are doing the same because they are lazy or simply don’t care, and some are taking sufficient care and not getting sick. For the first category, education is in order. For the second, if they get the runs from improperly handled or cooked eggs, it’s no one’s fault but their own and I have little sympathy for them. In the third case, enjoy your eggs! In none of these cases is a massive federal bureaucracy on the backs of egg producers warranted. I have no problem with taxpayers’ funds being spent on educational programs.

    What really bothers me is that laws & regulations imposed under the guise of protecting public health being in reality a ploy by big agribiz to run small producers out of business for the sake of protecting their monopolies. This is the way the local food movement will be crushed by corporate/government collusion, i.e., fascism. I’m already seeing it happen at the level of the farmer’s markets.

  14. darwinsdog:

    I agree about many regulations being designed with large producers in mind. I don’t think the government should be in the time-consuming and wasteful business of doing a company’s scale-up engineering for them gratis. What I would much MUCH prefer to see would be time and effort spent on outcomes and surveillance–if Farmer Joe can produce eggs from pastured chickens that are not contaminated just by doing some simple process, all that matters is the quality of the food. But I think you missed my point about quality: this particular producer is NOT selling perfectly fine eggs that just happen to be mishandled. He is selling nasty poop-slimed cracked eggs with paper-thin shells from sick hens and labeling them as healthful and good quality.

    re: how your eggs become contaminated. You know what Minimum Infectious Dose means, right? You have to have a certain number of bacteria in the egg to get sick from it. One or two Salmonella cfus aren’t enough. For Salmonella it’s quite high, about 5 log (doi: 10.1111/j.1745-4565.2001.tb00307.x). We’re not talking about your hens smudging even a little bit of crap on an egg here and there (in the sunlight where they can get some UV exposure no less), we’re talking these eggs had to be seriously filthy to pick up so much bacteria.

  15. Hi *, nice that everybody here agrees that cooking eggs etc. will solve the problem. I am a well educated, civilized person 😉 , I know about washing hands, kitchen hygiene (make sure, contaminated but cooked food does not infect uncontaminated food via shared knifes and boards, etc.). But then there is those earthly pleasures like Tiramisu, Mousse au Chocolat, my mother’s souffles: No way I will part with these, even though that means consumption of uncooked eggs. (Fortunately souffles are consumed quickly enough so they do not breed more bacteria; Tiramisu and Mousse au Chocolat unfortunatly provide a good habitat for salmonella). Next up, steaks and hamburgers: Yes, off course, “well done” is good solution to food safty issues, any buyers here ?
    This does not invalidate the desire for less regulation and more free markets: Private “Food Monitors” could help, certifying salmonella free eggs, beef, by virtue of their “stamp of approval”. Lets just make sure that they perform better than S&P or Moody’s (not joking!) By the way, it is fortunate that Wright County Egg is not “too big to fail”, or is it ?

  16. There are some very good comments posted here and it’s very interesting to read peoples opinions and thoughts. pjms (2 above me) makes some good points and I’ll just add this:

    A properly handled egg from a healthy animal on a healthy farm can be eaten RAW. Anyone who suggests we need to cook the hell out of everything we eat, either has their head in the sand or is an apologist for criminal factory farm operators.

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