The wish list of what the attention and publicity around the egg recall can accomplish grows by the day. First up is consolidation of food safety authority and an end to the crazy bifurcation that in just this (exceptionally confusing) case gives control of fresh eggs to the FDA but control of liquid eggs, chickens, and egg grading to the USDA. Marion Nestle has been pointing out similar lapses of logic—a.k.a. common sense—for years, including in the original edition of Food Politics. And I hope the Food Channel will be hearing from some of the front-line policy makers and investigators themselves over the next weeks.
William Neuman's typically excellent article on the efficacy of hen vaccination in Great Britain got me working on my own list, which I've been keeping since news of the recall broke. Wholesale hen vaccination didn't come up as a possibility in early news of the recall. But it could have been as effective as the safety steps that finally went into effect in July, as the FDA's Michael Taylor himself announced on the Food Channel (and which started too late to affect the current salmonella outbreak). In barely more than 10 years, Neuman writes,
The drop in salmonella infections in Britain was stunning.
In 1997, there were 14,771 reported cases in England and Wales of the most common type of the bacteria, a strain known as Salmonella Enteritidis PT4. Vaccine trials began that year, and the next year, egg producers began vaccinating in large numbers.
The number of human illnesses has dropped almost every year since then. Last year, according to data from the Health Protection Agency of England and Wales, there were just 581 cases, a drop of 96 percent from 1997.
The FDA was considering mandating vaccination, but couldn't agree on whether existing evidence supported it, and was unsure about vaccine versions. Looks like they should reconsider.
What gets lost in most of the alarmed discussions is that budget cutbacks in federal and particularly state governments have decimated the number of on-the-ground inspectors.
The regulations that finally went into place in July would have been enormously helpful, as FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in interviews on Monday. The rules, as outlined in a July 9 release from the FDA, require large farmers to buy hens tested for salmonella, put rodent and pest-control measures in place, and test regularly for salmonella (they don't apply to farmers with fewer than 3,000 hens—backyard fad-followers need not be alarmed).
All good. But even more important is consolidating authority so that even people who work at FDA and USDA know who does what—they're confused as it is. And giving FDA the power to mandate recalls rather than having to ask industry nicely (or not) to issue a recall—power, incredibly, it does not now have. Voluntary compliance is a risibly weak tool that industry does, frequently, laugh at. And giving the FDA money to enforce all its rules.