Egg Safety: In Too Many Baskets

By Corby Kummer
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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.

What gets lost in most of the alarmed discussions is that budget cutbacks in not just federal but state and local governments have decimated the number of on-the-ground inspectors who could have worked with farms and egg producers to help make farms, and eggs, more sanitary. The few trained inspectors that state and local health departments can still pay are forced to divide their time among meat, poultry, and dairy producers, and can't possibly conduct the number of inspections now required—a number that is already too small. And state and local agencies need to know that they can get support from the feds when they find a problem, not only a huge one like eggs but a small one that could get big. That, of course, depends on the funding that the FDA, USDA, and CDC themselves get. Luckily, the Centers for Disease Control still has its own team of crack inspectors, who traveled immediately to Iowa to investigate the current outbreak. But states and local departments need their own on-the-ground forces, and funding cuts means they're continually losing the people they had.


MORE ON EGG SAFETY:
Marion Nestle: Egg Recall Continues
Michael Taylor: New Egg Rules

The other big-picture item that gets lost is humane treatment of ... no, not chickens, though that's what's been getting attention, and I would be the last to deride the really laudable efforts by animal-welfare groups and the recent Ohio truce between the farm industry and humane-rights groups that will ban battery cages after this year. (As with most industry initiatives, it was in advance of a rule, here a ballot initiative, that could have exposed it to more expensive regulations.) It's treatment of workers. In a letter to Tom Vilsack, of the USDA, and Margaret Hamburg, Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, always good on food safety, asks a number of questions about the current outbreak, and expresses particular concern about the Washington Post report listing previous violations by the huge DeCoster farms, both in Iowa and, as New Englanders know the name, in Maine.

There was plenty of miserable, filthy treatment of animals, both hens and sows. But worse was the treatment of workers.

In 1996, DeCoster was fined $3.6 million for health and safety violations at the family's Turner egg farm, which then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich termed "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen." Regulators found that workers had been forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands and to live in filthy trailers

That's what's at the head of my lessons-learned list: regulations mandating humane treatment of workers. Let's merge parts of OSHA with a new food-safety authority too while we're at it. Food safety begins with people—people treated and paid decently.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/08/egg-safety-in-too-many-baskets/62088/