Hoenig's quality assurance program, the Maine SE Risk Reduction and Surveillance Program for Commerical Egg-Type Flocks, begins with the chicken houses themselves. Hens are brought in at about 20 weeks of age, when they begin to lay. Industrial laying henhouses are built in long rows so that each facility has a flock on a unique timetable—that way, only one house is empty at a time, and there is no drop in egg production. By the age of 74 to 84 weeks, hens have exhausted their laying potential. Quality Egg's "spent hens" are brought to a processing plant in Canada, where they're "rendered" for human consumption or sold to New York live markets, where consumers go to have chickens dressed in front of them.
Once a house is depopulated, Maine mandates that it remain empty for 10 days after the last bird was removed. Then, all the feed and water are removed. Plant workers remove all intruder animals. The house then goes through a period of intensive rodent baiting—using devices called "steel cats" that catch mice so that they can be counted. No new hens are allowed inside until mouse counts are acceptable. During this period, houses are also tested for SE. If positive, the facility must be cleaned of all visible manure—sometimes several feet accumulate in the deep-pit houses. Then the whole building will be thoroughly disinfected and fumigated.
The rest of the country hasn't adopted standards as strict as Maine's. Hoenig said that the FDA rules are more lax: they only mandate that eggs from positive houses be "diverted" for the life of the flock—sent, in other words, to the egg breaker for pasteurization and eventual use in processed and fast foods. The FDA does not require end-of-production environmental testing for SE.
Pullets, the young birds that grow into laying hens, are shipped in from breeders who test and certify their animals are SE-free; still, birds are tested monthly after they arrive at the facilities. The FDA mandates that flocks be tested for SE between weeks 14 to 16 and 40 to 45; Maine, under Hoenig's direction, has added another mandatory test phase at week 12.
NEXT: Intensified inspections, and the Maine facility's history of health and labor violations
Despite the extra precautions, Hoenig is frustrated by continual SE contamination. "We made progress to a point, and then we didn't. We were kind of at a static level—we had a couple of problem complexes that wouldn't go away. So I just made the decision, two and a half years ago, that we had to take another step: mandatory vaccination."
The new measures were influenced by a successful British initiative to vaccinate laying hens. If it is adopted widely in the U.S., Hoenig hopes it will eventually be a Salmonella silver bullet. Under the new program, there has not been a SE positive house in Maine since October 2009, nearly a year. Hoenig's pleased with the results, but says celebration is premature. "If we can go another year, or two, without a positive house," he said, "then I'll say—let's break out the champagne."